Archives For Paul

This Sunday I preached on my denomination’s proposed “Way Forward” through the impasse over human sexuality. My texts were 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8.

     A year ago this past Thursday a couple asked to meet with Dennis and me. Even though I emailed and texted them beforehand, they wouldn’t tell me why they needed to meet with me so urgently. Great, I thought, they’re either PO’d at me and are leaving the church, or they’re getting divorced. 

     Either way, I’m going to be late for dinner.

     When they came to my office, I could feel the anxiety popping off of them like static electricity. The counseling textbooks call it ‘active listening’ but really I was sitting there in front of them, silent, because I had no idea where or how to begin.

    The husband, the Dad, I noticed was clutching his jeans cuff at the knees. After an awkward silence and even more more awkward chit-chat, the wife, the Mom, finally said: “You and this church have been an important part of our lives. You baptized and confined our daughters so we wanted you to know what’s going on in our family and we thought we should do it face-to-face.”

     Here we go, I thought. They’re splitting up or splitting from here.

     “What’s up?” I asked, sitting up to find a knot in my stomach.

     And then she told us something else entirely. Something surprising.

     She told us their daughters, youth in the church about my oldest son’s age, had both come out to them.

    “They’re both gay” she said.

     “Is that all?!” I asked. “Good God, that’s a relief. I was afraid you were going to tell me you were getting a divorce! Jesus doesn’t like divorce.”

     They exhaled. I could see they’d been holding their breath.

     “This church has been a big part of our lives and we wanted to make sure you knew that about them” she said.

     “But also…” her voice trailed off and then her husband spoke up. “We also wanted to make sure that they’d still be welcomed here, that there’d be a place for them.”

     “Of course. Absolutely.”

     I could see the hesitation in their eyes, like I’d just tried to sell them the service plan at Best Buy so I said it plain: “Look, I love them. This church loves them. And God loves them. Nothing will ever change that.”

     “You don’t think they’re sinners?” she asked.

     “Of course they’re sinners” I said “but that would be just as true if they were straight too. Besides, it doesn’t change my point. Jesus loves sinners. It’s pious types he’s got a problem with.”

     We talked a bit more.

     About how this “issue” was playing out now in the larger United Methodist Church. About how it can be hard to adjust to picturing your kids’ future as something different than what you’d always imagined.

     “You guys baptized and confirmed them here” the dad said by way of example. “I’ve always pictured them having a place here.” 

——————

     As Dennis broke down for you last Sunday, the United Methodist Church stands at a clenched-teeth, fingers-crossed impasse over the issue of human sexuality. 

     The Council of Bishops earlier this year received a report from a special 30-person global commission called “The Way Forward,” and on Friday the Council of Bishops released the broad strokes of what will be their recommendation to the larger Church next winter at a special session to decide the matter. 

    And on Friday night Dennis called me to tell me to talk about it in my sermon. “I’ll be away for the weekend,” he said before disappearing in a cloud of sulfur.

     The Council of Bishops weighed 3 options put forward to the them. 

     Two of the options, on either end of the spectrum, could be termed the conservative and progressive options. The former option would keep our church polity and discipline as it is now where homosexuality is described as being contrary to Christian teaching and openly gay Christians are kept from serving in the ministry. The latter option, meanwhile, would liberalize the Church’s language on sexuality. 

     The challenge for a global Church, of course, is that there are many churches, especially in the developing world, that insist on the conservative option while there is a growing cultural consensus in North America towards flexibility on our views of sexuality. 

     What the Council of Bishops recommend is a middle way, a compromise called the “One Church” Model where the United Methodist Church doesn’t fracture and schism into pieces yet would allow churches and jurisdictions to decide for themselves, based on their mission field and cultural context, how they will interpret and enforce teaching on human sexuality. 

     In other words, it would allow the Church in a place like Greenwich Village or Dupont Circle to look different than the Church in Mississippi or Ghana. 

     Let me repeat that so you’ve got it: 

The mission field would determine our position on sexuality and enforcement of it not our differing interpretations of what scripture says about sexuality. 

     And just in case the term “mission field” conjures up exotic images of sun-swept savannas, by mission field we’re talking about places like Aldersgate and 22308 where, for my kids and their peers, it’s strange-to-the-point-of-archaic that Christians are even still having this argument. Like it or not, Will and Grace settled this question for the culture years ago. In such a mission field, the question is do you care more that people have the right position on sexuality or do you care that they know Jesus is the friend of sinners?

     If the recommendation is approved next winter (long odds still), then the best case scenario is that the United Methodist Church’s position on sexuality will be peace amidst difference. So, it’s much too early to know what will come of this issue in the larger Church but Dennis thought we owed it to you, as pastors of this particular church, to articulate why we endorse something like this middle way. 

———————-

     What the “One Church” model gets right that both of the other options get wrong, in my view, is that our mission to proclaim the Gospel to our community is more urgent than our being the Church with the right position on sexuality or the right interpretation of scripture on it. 

     Put another way, nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly. 

     I have no interest in being a part of the Church-of-the-Correct-Opinion, whether that Church is traditional or progressive. I want to be a part of a Church that makes the Gospel what St. Paul says it is: the most important of our concerns.  

     And, notice in 1 Corinthians 15, in his definition of what is supposed to be our chief concern, the Gospel, the only sins Paul mentions in the Gospel are the sins for which Christ has already died; that is, all of them. 

     It seems silly to the point of missing the plot to spend time and treasure ($2,000/minute when the global Church gathers for days to debate this issue- I don’t want to put a damper on your generosity, but for every dollar you give to this church pennies to a nickel of it go to fund this argument)- it seems silly and sinfully wasteful to me to argue what does and does not constitute a sin when the wages of every one of all of our sins have already been paid by Christ’s bleeding and dying. 

    Once for all. 

     In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues that if Christ has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins.

The inverse of his argument sharpens what’s at stake:

Since Christ has been raised from the grave-

we, who are in Christ by baptism, are NOT in our sins. 

     Or, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, the lynchpin of the entire New Testament: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” 

     And being in Christ is not something for you to subjectively discern. You can know you are in Christ Jesus because, just before Romans 8, Paul has told you that by your baptism you have been crucified with Christ in his death for your sins, buried with him, and raised in him for your justification. 

     Therefore- by your baptism- there is now no condemnation. Isn’t our willingness to divide Christ’s Body the Church over issues of sexuality a disavowal of that Gospel Therefore?

If we’re wiling to split the Church over some “sins” (the sin of homophobia for some, the sin of sexual immorality for others) aren’t we really declaring therefore there are still some sins for which is condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus?

———————-

     Look, don’t let the earring and tattoos mislead you. 

     Theologically-speaking, I’m the most conservative pastor you have on staff. That’s not even a joke. Theologically-speaking, I’m so hyper-Protestant our DS accuses me of being Methodist-in-name-only. 

     So I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I really do. In the wake of #MeToo and this current administration, I empathize with those who critique the nihilistic sexual ethics of our culture, worry about its cheapening of sex and the objectification of bodies and of women, and its devaluing of tradition, especially the traditional authority of scripture in the life of the Church.

     Such traditionalists are correct to insist that the male-female union is the normative relationship espoused by the Church’s scripture and confession. They’re right to remind us that neither scripture nor tradition in any way condones homosexual relationships.

     I don’t disagree with them that in a Church which took centuries to codify what we mean by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Incarnation,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. 

     And I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the Gospel of Christ and him crucified.

     I get it. I’m just aware- and if I wasn’t already, those parents who came to Dennis and me last spring grabbed me by the collar and shook me awake- that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such traditionalism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.

————————

     So I empathize with my friends on the “traditional” side of the debate. But, I find other issues, other biblical issues, more urgent. Namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

     The good news that Jesus Christ has done for you what you were unable to do for yourself: live a righteous life before a holy God who demands perfection.

     In all our arguing about getting it right on this one issue- I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news.

     Take today’s text:

     If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness. 

     His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin. 

     This is why St. Paul is so adamant about the absolute necessity not just of Christ’s cross but of Christ’s empty grave. Because by baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin- however you define what constitutes sin- all of it is his). 

     And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it). 

     You’ve been clothed, Paul says, with Christ’s righteousness. 

     So why do we spend so much time arguing about sinful living vs. holy living when the former cannot undo nor can the latter improve the righteousness of Christ with which we’ve already been clothed? 

     Nothing you do can take those clothes which are Jesus Christ off of you. And nothing the baptized OTHER, with whom you disagree, can do can take those clothes that are Christ off of them.

     To be blunt about it- 

     Whether you’re progressive or conservative- it doesn’t matter how correctly you interpret scripture on sexuality nor does it matter with whom you share a bed or what you do in it- none of it changes the fact that if you are in Christ God regards you as Christ. That is not your pious achievement nor is it your moral accomplishment; it is grace. It is gifted to you by God through your baptism. 

     If we were all convinced that all of us who are baptized are as righteous as Jesus Christ himself-

Then maybe we’d be less eager to divide his Body the Church in the name of our righteous causes.

———————-

     Look-

     I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel, says St. Paul, frees us from the Law.

     The Gospel frees us from the burden of living a sinless, perfect-score sex life. Having a “pure” sex life justifies you before God not at all. And because by your baptism you’ve been clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness, the opposite is also true. Having an “impure” sex life effects your justification before God NOT AT ALL. 

     The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sex. Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification.

     In fighting over who has the righteous position, left and right, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of self-righteous works of the Law that prompted the Protestant movement exactly 500 years ago. And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture about sex- they’re the Law: Do this…don’t do this.

     The Law, which the Apostle Paul says, was given by God as a placeholder for Jesus Christ, who is the End of the Law.

     The point of the Law, for St. Paul, is to convict of us our sin, making us realize how far we ALL fall short such that we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Christ. 

I don’t get the sense that’s how the Law functions for us in these sexuality debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.

You’ve fallen short of traditional biblical teaching.

You’ve fallen short of being open and affirming and inclusive.

You’ve fallen short. 

    I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

    But I care more about the Gospel. 

    And the Gospel, as Jesus says, is good news. It’s for sinners and scoundrels and phonies not saints. It’s for those who are sick and know their need not for the show-offs with their claptrap about holy living.

     I care more about the Gospel.

     I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree. I care more about them knowing the only access they require to this eternal get of jail free card is not their pretense of ‘righteousness’ but their trust in Christ’s perfect righteousness. More than the ‘right’ position on sex, I care more about people knowing that God gave himself for them in spite of them; therefore, God literally doesn’t give a @#$ about the content or the character of your lives.

     God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free. 

     I fear our fighting over sexuality conveys that God’s grace isn’t costly.

It’s expensive.

Paid in the hard-to-obtain currency of your right-believing and your-interpreting and your holy-living. 

    But here’s the thing about holiness- 

Holiness, as Martin Luther said, doesn’t become a reality in you until you’re more passionate about the grace of God in Jesus Christ than you are about your own holiness. 

The former is to love God for what he has done for you. 

The latter is to take God’s name in vain in order to love yourself for what you do. 

    Luther said we prove our depravity as fallen creatures not by our sin but by our propensity to fill Christ’s empty tomb with well-intentioned obligations, to add to the Gospel that we are made right with God by grace alone in Christ alone through trust- not the uprightness of our sexuality or interpretation of scripture- alone. 

———————-

     Back to those girls- 

     And, since you baptized them, they’re your girls as much as they’re their parents’.

     If our ongoing, intractable fights over sexuality convey to even one person that God condescended in Christ for someone UNLIKE them, then all our fighting is costlier than $2000 per minute.

     If our ecclesial brinkmanship over sexuality implies to even one person that our having the right position on sexuality in any way effects our justification, then the debate isn’t worth it.

     And if my kids’ peers are any indication, then the risk to the Gospel grows every day we waste with this impasse. 

     Like it or not, Will and Grace first aired 20 years ago. Velma on Scooby Doo was TV’s first lesbian 50 years ago. Admit it, Anderson Cooper is the only member of the media you actually trust. 

     Our culture- this mission field- has moved on whether we like it or not. Queer Eye seems passe at this point. 

     If meat sacrificed to false gods was fine fare for a BBQ for the Apostle Paul, then this isn’t a hill he would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel. 

     Why would he?

     The Gospel is that because Christ was crucified for your sins and was raised for your justification there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

     You see, the rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that it means we can’t shake those Christians who think there is STILL CONDEMNATION. 

     Condemnation for those who have the wrong view of scripture. 

     Condemnation for those who aren’t inclusive enough. 

     The rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that we’re forever stuck at the party called SALVATION with THOSE PEOPLE WHO THINK THOSE PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BE AT THE PARTY. 

     The Elder Brother in the story never goes into the Father’s feast for the prodigal son- but the WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION.  

     THE WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION. 

     I don’t know what will come of the Bishops’ recommendation and I suppose its naive to think the United Methodist Church will get through this debate more easily than the other denominations that jumped into it ahead of us; nonetheless, we’re in favor of a middle way because it seems that a middle way which leaves everyone slightly teed off is exactly how God works. 

     Such a middle way allows good people of faith to keep on discussing who it is those girls- your girls- can love but such a middle way does so without jeopardizing the Church’s primary mission to make sure those girls- your girls- know who loves them. 

     Know who loves them. 

To the grave and back. 

     Jesus Christ. 

     Who takes us into himself in our baptism and who gives himself to be taken into us through the wine and bread that is his body and blood.

     Honestly, there is no way forward other than a middle way.

Because all of us who are baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us.

All of us baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us; such that, not one of us can say to the other, no matter what we think about scripture or who we sleep with- not one of us can say to the other, I have no need of you.

    For our Saturday Service, I wrote a letter to Noah on the occasion of his baptism. The texts were 1 Corinthians 15 & Romans 6

Dear Noah,

Mark this day down- May 5, 2018.

This is the day you died.

The story that is your namesake, Noah, should’ve been my clue. The first Noah’s story isn’t all rainbows and two-by-two teddy bears. By so naming you, I should’ve known that one day, before you were old enough to protest or have any say in the matter for yourself, your doting parents would prove to be happy and willing accomplices to your death.

Your grandpa is obsessed with his Go-Pro so just check the pictures, Noah. Your parents stood right next to me, wearing grins, and acquiesced as we drowned you in water.

We destroyed you- well, not you but the Old Noah. We baptized you.

By ‘we,’ I mean the Church. No, that doesn’t get it right either.

God baptized you, Noah.

 God baptized you.

That’s why it doesn’t matter you were still in diapers, still smelled like a baby, and couldn’t yet muster a single yay or nay for or against Jesus.

Your cooperation mattered not at all because God was the one who baptized you.

You in your bonnet and sucking on your fingers were no different than the rest of us grown ups in that the only thing we contribute God’s salvation of you is our sin.

And our resistance.

God baptized you Noah. The Church was just his ark from which we watched as bystanders and then dragged you on board after it was all over. Actually, Noah, your name is perfect for a baptism- it’s perfect for a Christian- for “the chief biblical analogy for baptism is not the water that washes but the flood that drowns (Willimon).”

Take your name as a clue, Noah, the life of the baptized Christian is not about turning over ever more new leaves in your life. Faith is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation. What we’ve committed you to with water, by killing you and making you alive, is nothing less than daily, often painful, lifelong death.

Who knew your parents, the shy and awkward high school kids I met my first day here at Aldersgate, would one day make me an accomplice to something so macabre. That was so long ago, Noah, my wife still let me get away with wearing cargo shorts, and back then it was still funny to make fun of Dennis Perry’s age.

Back then, I often crossed lines and offended people. For instance, shortly after I arrived at Aldersgate the youth director asked me to come to your future parents’ youth group to talk about a Christian understanding of sex and sexuality.

Asking your pastor to come talk to teenagers about sex is about as enticing as inviting your plumber to a nude photo shoot so, wanting to puncture the awkwardness which overwhelmed the room, I resorted to a bit of wisdom from Woody Allen and I told them: “Don’t knock masturbation; it’s sex with someone I love.” You can ask your grandma to explain that to you sometime, Noah.

I like to think that wasn’t the only lesson on love and marriage your Mom and Dad gleaned from me and my beloved. When they college students, your parents traveled with Ali and me to Taize, a monastery in the French countryside. During the day we prayed and we played, and at night we camped out on the monastery grounds in tents.

Your Dad hid in one of those tents one night, specifically our tent, and scared the piss out of Ali. And from their (separate) tents your future Mom and Dad heard my wife in our tent foreshadow the married life with nuggets of advice such as: “Get that thing off of me (ie, my book)” and “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger; stay up and fight.”

Not long after, Noah, I married your Mom and Dad, which makes your baptism a fitting bookend to my time at Aldersgate. They were the first two people I met at Aldersgate. I celebrated their wedding, and now what we do to you with water, St. Paul says, is itself a betrothal. When you’re married one day, Noah, you’ll not think it odd that the two chief metaphors for baptism are death and marriage.

Ironically, the scripture passage from which I preached at your parents’ wedding was itself about baptism. In baptism, St. Paul says, through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, our old self is not only drowned and killed but we also are clothed with Jesus.

By the water of baptism, whether our faith is as mighty as a mountain or as meager as a mustard seed, we wear Christ’s perfect righteousness.

    You are dressed, in other words, Noah, in Christ’s perfect score.

     Permanently.

Permanently. No amount of prodigal living can undo it. You might keep your grandmothers awake at night in high school, Noah, but nothing you do henceforth can erase what God does here with water and his word. You are now clothed with Christ, and, as such, will always forever be regarded by God as Christ. The Son’s righteousness, not your own goodness, has betrothed you forever to the Father.

This is why St. Paul in his grand argument on the resurrection is so adamant about the absolute necessity of Christ’s empty grave otherwise, Paul insists, our faith is futile and our hope is pitiful.

Pay attention Noah-

 If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness.

His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin.

And by your baptism, Noah, the Bible promises that you are in Christ.

You’ve not only been crucified with him in his death for sins- all sins, all sins, once and for all- you’ve been raised with him too. By baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin, all of it). And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it).

What God does to you with water, killing and making alive, the Church has called it the great exchange, and it is great, good news. But despite how often we throw that word “Gospel” around, Noah, it’s a word that’s often misunderstood, intentionally I think, by tight-sphinctered pious types who get nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives us.

Well, truthfully, I think they’re nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives to other people.

“For freedom Christ has set you free,” the Bible declares. But what you’ll hear instead, Noah (most often, I should point out, in the Church) is that the freedom of the Gospel is really the freedom for you to be good and obedient. If that strikes you as cognitive dissonance then your mother, a school psychologist, must’ve taught you a thing or two.

You’ll hear these pious types too say things like “Yes, grace is amazing but we mustn’t take advantage of it.” Or else…they seldom finish that sentence but they make sure you catch their drift. They’ll imply as well that God’s forgiveness is conditioned upon you feeling sorry for your sins and, even then, as my mother used to say, saying sorry doesn’t cut it, they’ll say. No.

Noah, laminate this and tack it to your wall if you must.

The Gospel of total, unconditional freedom and forgiveness may be a crazy way to save the world, but the add-ons and alternatives you’ll often hear are not only nonsense, they’re the biggest bad news there is. 

Christ died for all your sins. All of his perfect record has been reckoned as your own- all of it is yours.

Hell yes, the wages of sin is death.

But today, May 5, 2018 in shallow water, you died.

Thus, there are no wages left to be paid for any of your sins. As St. Paul says in Romans 8- the lynchpin, I think, of the entire Bible: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

No condemnation.

     Think of it this way, Noah:

All your sins from here on out are FREE.

All your sins are free. There is no cost to any of your sins other than what they cost your neighbor. You can dishonor your father and your mother, if you like. You can forgive somewhere south of 70×7 times. You can begrudge a beggar your spare coin. You can cheat on your girlfriend or your boyfriend. I personally wouldn’t commend such a life but such a life has no bearing on your eternal life.

Such a life has no bearing on how God regards you because you’ve been buried with God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, and you’ve been raised to newness in him. Of course, the world will be a more beautiful place and your life will be a whole lot happier if you forgive those who trespass against you and give to the poor, if your love is patient and kind, un-angry and absent boasting. But God loves you not one jot or tittle less if you don’t do any of it.

“It rains on the righteous and the unrighteous alike,” Jesus teaches in the Gospels. And, imagining ourselves as the former instead of the latter, we always hear that teaching as the “offense” of grace. But turn the teaching around and you can hear it as Jesus intended for the baptized to hear it: God will bless you even if you’re bad.

    The god who dies in Christ’s grave never to return is the angry god conjured by our anxious hearts and fearful imaginations

I thought it important to write to you, Noah, because soon I’ll be gone, and as you grow up you’re bound to run into all sorts of quasi-Christians inoculated with just enough of the Gospel to be immune to it, and I don’t want them to infect you with their immunity.

They’re easy to identify, Noah. Just look for the people who seem bound and determined to fill Christ’s empty tomb with rules and regulations. Such inoculated quasi-Christians come in all shapes and sizes and colors, but they’re not difficult to spot. They’re the ones who make Christianity all about behavior modification, either of the sexual kind or the social justice kind, making you mistakenly believe that God is waiting for you to shape up, to wake up, to be a better you and build a better world.

Our building a better world or becoming a better self is all well and good, but that’s not the good news God attaches to water. Someone named Noah should know better.

Martin Luther wrote that the Devil’s chief work in the world is to convince us that this or that sin we’ve committed- or are committing- disqualifies us from God’s unqualified grace.

If Luther’s right then the Devil is no place more active than in Christ’s Body, the Church, and the Devil’s primary mode of attack comes at us through other believers, through those freedom-allergic believers who take our sins to be more consequential than Christ’s triumph over them.

In the face, of such attacks and second-guessing of our sins, Luther admonished us to remember our baptism.

Remember-

You’ve already been paid the wages of your sins. You’ve already been given the gift of Christ’s righteousness. There is therefore no condemnation for you. All your sins are free.

Noah, to those inoculated Christians I warned you about, this sort of freedom will sound like nihilism. They’ll fret: If you don’t have to worry about incurring God’s wrath and punishment by your unfaithfulness, then you’ll have no motivation to be faithful, to love God and their neighbor.

Without the stick, the carrot of grace will just permit people to do whatever they want, to live prodigally without the need to ever come home from the far country.

As easily as we swallow such objections, I don’t buy it.

Speaking just from my own experience, most of the damage I do to myself and to others isn’t because I’m convinced God doesn’t condemn me for my sins but because I fear- despite my faith, I still fear God will condemn me for my sins.

And so I do damage, making others the object of my anxious attempts to make myself look better and be better than I am, in other words, to justify myself. I think this explains why the people against whom we sin the most are the people we most love. They’re the ones we most want to impress so they become the ones against whom we most sin.

The hilarity of the Gospel, Noah, is that the news that all your sins are free actually frees you from sinning. Skeptical? Take, as Exhibit A, Jesus Christ: the only guy ever on record convinced to his marrow of the Father’s unconditional love. And his being convinced that God had no damns to give led him to what? To live a sinless life.

That Jesus was without sin was the consequence not of his goodness and perfection but of Jesus’ perfect trust in the goodness of his Father.

Still not buying it?

Your Dad is an engineer, Noah, so let’s put a number on it. Make it concrete. Let’s say you had one thousand free sins to sin without fear of condemnation. What would you do? Would you hop from bedroom to brothel, like a prodigal son or a certain president? Maybe.

Your Mom the psychologist, though, would tell you it’s more likely that if you had a thousand free sins all your own then you’d stop being so concerned about the sins of others.

You’d stop drawing lines between us versus them.

You’d stop pretending.

And you’d take off the masks that bind you to roles that kill the freedom Christ gives you.

Such a scenario, Noah, isn’t the stuff of a hypothetical life. It’s the baptism we invite you to live into. All your sins are free. Don’t get me wrong, Noah.

It’s not that the good works you do for God and for you neighbor don’t matter. Rather, it’s that even the best good works of a Mother Theresa are a trifling pittance compared to the work of Christ gifted to you by water and the Word. 

Look kid, brass tacks time:

Christianity isn’t about a nice man like me (and I’m not even that nice) telling nice people like you that God calls them to do the nice things they were already going to do apart from God or the Church.

The world is a wicked and hard place.

And, in it, sorry to disappoint, you will fail as many times as not.

 You need only read the story that is your namesake, Noah, to know that the world needs stronger medicine than our niceness and good works, particularly when our supposed goodness is a big part of the problem.

Your baptism, therefore, is not like soap. It doesn’t make you nice and clean. It makes you new. After first making you dead.

As you grow up, Noah, you’ll discover people asking questions about that story whence comes your name. Usually in between what philosophers call the first and the second naiveté, they’ll wonder: “Did God really kill all those people in the flood long ago?”

And you, Noah, because of today, will be able to answer them rightly:

“God kills with water all the time.”

Sincerely,

Jason

Alex and Kim’s Wedding – 4/21/18

What kind of wedding sermon do you write for two video-gaming nerds? This one.

Galatians 3.26-29

“In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

 

“Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.”

– Robert Capon

Alex and Kim,

You two still haven’t gotten back to me with the results of your Meyers- Briggs personality tests like I asked, but you’ve obviously spent too much money for us all to be here this afternoon so I’m going to let that one slide. Nonetheless, just because you’re tardy with the test results doesn’t mean I’m all done posing my pre-marital questions to the two of you.

I’ve got one question left: What are you thinking? Are you crazy?

How can two video gaming nerds like yourselves get married today? It’s only been a week since Billy Mitchell, the erstwhile record holder on both Donkey Kong and Centipede, not to mention his perfect Pac Man game, was found out to be an 8-bit fraud and sinner just like the rest of us. Are you guys up for getting married given the dark news about the King of Donkey Kong?

Billy Mitchell was once celebrated by a documentary film, The King of Kong, but last week he was the subject of an NPR investigative report of how he’d lied about his record-setting score all these years- a record around which he’d defined his entire life and identity.

How can two gamers like yourselves celebrate a wedding at a time like this? Shouldn’t you be mourning for Billy’s sake? Or, at least, trying to take his place on the leader board?

I think we can all agree, given the King of Kong’s fall from grace, that this is a bold leap of faith you take today. After seeing Billy Mitchell run out of lives, revealed as fraud not only to the world but to his wife, most gamers would get skittish about moving on to the next level called marriage.

Frankly, even before Billy Mitchell, I didn’t think we’d get to today. I suspected the two of you would never decide on the songs with which you would process in and later dance to today. You couldn’t make up your minds. I remember one of you mentioned something about Etta James’ “At Last,” and instead I suggested the theme music from Legend of Zelda.

I’d also suggested Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” but then you both informed me that Kim’s dress would be coral not white. Now that the Big Day is here, I’m glad I finally get to learn coral is closer to orange than turquoise. Hey, how should I know what color coral is? Like George Constanza, I only pretend to be a marine biologist when I’m at parties or wedding receptions.

The truth is- just as Billy Mitchell’s score has no bearing on us, we don’t need Billy Idol today either because Kim’s wedding dress doesn’t matter.

     What matters- The garment that matters for their marriage is the garment we are given by our baptism.

You are what you wear, the clothes make the man, go the cliches, yet they’re not true. My robe and stole don’t make me any more pious than you, and you all dressed to the nines today doesn’t change anything true about you.

The only clothes that make you who you are- and make you into someone you are not yet– are the clothes given to you by water and the word.

What’s the mean?

In baptism, St. Paul says, through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are clothed with Jesus.

By the water of baptism, whether our faith is as mighty as a mountain or as meager as a mustard seed, we wear Christ’s perfect righteousness.

We are dressed, in other words, in Christ’s perfect score.

And, unlike as happened to Billy Mitchell, nothing- can undo Christ’s high score that is reckoned to you as your own score.

I’m not an idiot. I realize this may sound like religious hokum, but I’m not just a professional Christian. I’m also a full-time sinner and a husband of 17 years, and I can vouchsafe that what St. Paul says about your true wedding garment- the one given to you in baptism: Christ’s own perfect score- they’re not just words to live by; they’re words that give life. 

Because each of us already possess Christ’s own perfect score, we don’t need to improve each other (because, no matter what you see or suspect, the other already has a perfect score).

Because each of us already possess Christ’s own perfect score, we don’t need to try and control the other. We don’t need to treat each other as an improvement project or as an investment we hope will pay dividends later.

     Because each of us already possess Christ’s own perfect score, we don’t need to keep score.

And that’s good, grace-giving news because in a world where we count and score everything (steps, calories, sleep rate, heart rate, interest rates), if you’re not careful, marriage can become a crucible of score-keeping.

 Am I a good enough wife? Am I the man of her dreams? Am I interesting enough? Does she really still like playing Zelda with me? Am I still attractive enough? Are we making enough money? Is this house big enough? Will our kids get into the right schools? What will be the photo on our Christmas card? Whose parents are we spending Thanksgiving with? Didn’t I do the dishes last night? This is the third time he’s done that since promising not to do it.

Marriage can become a crucible of score-keeping that quickly turns into a mine-field of score-settling. But St. Paul says all our score-keeping has been buried in the grave we call baptism. All our heretofore high scores by which we try to justify ourselves are forgotten in Christ’s death and all of our low scores- all of our sins, all of our mistakes and misdeeds, all of our grievances- are covered over by our wedding garment.

The two of you today promise to love one another according to the folly of God’s grace. You’re promising to love one another without keeping score. You’re pledging to love with a love that goes beyond deserving.

No matter what Kim does, no matter what Alex has done- the two of you promise to give the other the opposite of what they deserve.

And, as potentially costly as that sounds, you can afford it because you already possess a perfect and permanent score.

     You’ve got nothing to lose.

I realize, practically-speaking, this can sound like bad advice. Not keeping score- it can leave you vulnerable. You can get hoodwinked. You can get hurt. That’s the leap of faith you two take today. In scrapping the score-keeping ledger, you’re each giving over to the other an enormous power to do damage to the other.

But today isn’t about practicalities. As much as you might like it or need it, today isn’t about you two getting good advice. Let’s face it, there’s not a married person here who knows what they hell they’re doing.

Today isn’t about you two getting good advice for how to love one another.

Today is about the two of you becoming a parable of how God loves each of us.

By giving each of us a perfect score- by clothing us in Jesus- God calls our sin by another name until our every sin is named out of existence. By giving us this wedding garment by which we are all betrothed to him, God credits to us a goodness that isn’t there until, over time, one day all that is there is the goodness that God only at first declared.

Today with vows and rings you two promise to regard each other according to the perfect score the Game Designer has already reckoned to them, to give to them a love beyond their deserving, trusting that one day, through the foolish wisdom of God’s grace, all that will remain of the other is that perfection.

Marriage will afford every opportunity for your badness to be uncovered by the other, but, by regarding each other according to the wedding clothes with which you’ve been covered, even that badness will be transformed into the likeness of the Beloved.

And when the game is over and you’re all out of lives and it’s time for you both to level up, you will be able to look back on your marriage together and say you both enjoyed a love that was more than any of us deserve.

Only then, by the folly of God’s grace, will the cliche prove true: You are what you wear.

 

 

 

WDJD?

Jason Micheli —  April 1, 2018 — 2 Comments

Easter Sunday – 1 Corinthians 15.1-11

This is my 13th Easter at Aldersgate. I arrived here from a church in Rockbridge, Virginia 13 years ago- right around Dennis’ 60th birthday. It’s true. Dennis Perry been putting the senior in senior pastor longer than Fox News has been obsessed with Hillary Clinton. He’s so old now that whenever he stops moving people start to throw dirt on him.

13 Easters- that’s a lot of years of me making Dennis look like a competent contributor to the staff. I mean, really, Dennis manages to put in less time than a Trump cabinet appointee. 13 Easters- that’s a lot of years of me showing Dennis how to login to his computer. Seriously, he chose his password so you’d think he’d remember that Hasselhoff has 2 f’s at the end.

Our bishop is foisting me on unsuspecting strangers come summer, and to help prepare them, because I’m what Karla Kincannon calls “an acquired taste,” Dennis Perry suggested I take the Enneagram personality assessment- it’s like the Meyers Briggs for naval gazers.

According to Russ Hudson, who is the President of the Enneagram Institute (dot com), the Enneagram:

“is one of the world’s most powerful and insightful tools for understanding ourselves and others. At its core, the Enneagram helps us see ourselves and others at a deeper, more objective level and be of invaluable assistance on our path to self-knowledge.”

After forking over $11.99 for the privilege of looking more deeply and objectively into my innards, I took the Russ Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator test (version 2.5), answering a series of binary questions such as:

Others should do: A) What’s right B) What I tell them

Upon finishing, with the authority of the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts, the RHETI 2.5 told me that out of 9 Enneagram Types I’m an 8.

Why not a 9? I wondered to myself as I clicked open my report.

“The Challenger” it said at the top of my instantaneous report.

Okay, the Challenger, I thought to myself, I like the sound of the Challenger. According to the Enneagram Inventory, 8’s are powerful (obviously), decisive (goes without saying), and self-confident (yep).

This is a good tool, I thought to myself, already starting to cut and paste it to send to Dennis.

Of course, I should’ve known that ever since Sally Ride “The Challenger is something of a bad omen.

I clicked the “Learn More” tab and the next page it called up communicated that as an 8 I’m also willful, confrontational, impatient, sarcastic, and argumentative.

“I am not argumentative,” I shouted at the laptop screen, “This test is stupid.”

No doubt Russ Hudson would roll his eyes and say my response was predictable considering that 8’s allegedly also believe they know better than everyone else, suspect they’re always the smartest person in the room, and where you have opinions I have facts.

After taking RHETI 2.5 5 more times to the total tune of $60.00 and rolling a hard 8 every time, I showed it my wife, Ali, who read the rap sheet of an 8 and replied: “BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.”

She actually snorted boogery ice-water out through her nose.

Then she took the laptop from me and read a loud, as if for an audience:

“Don’t flatter an 8. It will only inflate their already large ego. When an 8 curses and uses inappropriate humor just remember that’s the way they are. An 8 doesn’t mean to overwhelm you with bluntness they just get restless when they perceive incompetence.”

Then she patted me on my sulking head, and said “Don’t you see sweetie, this is why so many people think you’re a @#$!@#.”

Which is why for my 13th Ash Wednesday here at Aldersgate, I gave up Ali for Lent and told her she can return to our bed sometime around Arbor Day.

 

After spending $72.00 more dollars and taking the RHTI 2.5 6 more times to no variance in results, I decided to email Russ Hudson and ask if I could get a refund from his fortune-cookie, tarot card reading racket.

“Dear President Hudson,

According to Wikipedia,” I typed, “your scratch-n-sniff personality assessment tool was later disavowed by its original developer. As I write this, the Ides of March are upon us. Perhaps you should expand your little ponzi scheme empire and start selling divining rods too. This might not strike you as a good business venture, but I don’t really care, as an 8, I think you should just do what I tell you to do.

Blessings,

Reverend Jason Micheli.”

After I clicked send, I read a little more of my report which told me that some of the other Enneagram 8’s in history are Mahatma Ghandi, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, the guy from the Dos Equis commercials, and Jesus Christ.

No.

Russ Hudson the personality test president with the porn star name apparently has it out for me. His report told me that among Enneagram 8’s there are names like General George Patton, Richard Nixon, Homer Simpson, Donald Trump and- I’m not joking- St. Paul.

I’m still contesting my RHTI 2.5 results with Russ, but I bet his read on St. Paul is right-on. Paul’s an 8 with a capital E because, when it comes to Easter Paul doesn’t talk about his feelings or his personal experience.

Paul doesn’t tell us a story about the empty tomb he gives us an argument.

“By this Gospel you are saved…for what I received I passed on as of chief importance: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”

And Paul continues for 30 more verses:

“If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is in vain and your faith is a waste of time…for if Christ has not been raised we are all liars and you are still in your sins.”

The oldest sustained Easter account doesn’t come from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John but from St. Paul, and what St. Paul gives us isn’t a story with angels and an empty tomb.

He gives us an argument.

Evidently, you all aren’t the only ones who think Easter is a day for fools because when the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Corinth he doesn’t spin an inspiring story. He doesn’t muddle it with metaphors about butterflies or springtime renewal. He doesn’t contort it into cliches about hope beyond the grave or love being stronger than death.

No, he mounts an argument that the grave really is empty. He marshals evidence that Jesus Christ IN FACT has been raised from the dead.

Maybe it’s because he’s an Enneagram 8, but when it comes to Easter, Paul doesn’t think what you need is spiritual uplift or subjective inspiration. At Easter, Paul doesn’t offer advice. He insists on an argument because Paul believes that what you really need isn’t spiritual uplift or practical advice about how to live your best life now.

What you truly need is a God who is real.

Because if God is real, if Christ is Risen indeed, then nothing else matters- certainly not your problems.

And if God is not real, then nothing matters.

Every year we send out an Easter mailer to the community, and every year we receive a stack of them sent back to us with words like MYTH, FICTION, FAKE NEWS scrawled all over them.

Look, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, by definition, is beyond reason, but belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is NOT unreasonable.

And, for those in the church at Corinth who crossed their fingers and their toes at Easter, the Apostle Paul makes an argument.

Christ was buried, Paul reminds them.

As Paul puts it in the Book of Acts, “these things didn’t happen in a corner.”

In other words, Christ’s empty tomb first was proclaimed to the very people who had seen him die and who could have gone to his grave with a wheel-barrow and brought back for themselves his nail-scarred bones. Had they been there.

Christianity is the only movement in history that began after the death of its leader. Riddle that.

It’s because, Paul tells the Corinthians, after he was raised from the dead, Christ appeared to over 500 people- actually, more than 500 people because, according to Jewish counting custom, Paul only mentions the men.

And among those 500 plus people encountered by the Risen Christ, Paul writes, was James, the half-brother of Jesus who had not been a disciple of Jesus and who thought his brother Jesus was a total nut job while Jesus was alive.

But we know, even from Roman historians, that after Jesus’ death James testified to his resurrection and was eventually condemned by the same chief priests who had condemned his brother.

James was condemned, just like his brother, for confessing that his brother Jesus was the Christ.

The resurrection is beyond reason, but it is NOT unreasonable, Paul argues.

How else do you explain me, Paul says to the Corinthians. After appearing to over 500, finally as to “an aborted fetus” (is how he puts it in the Greek) Christ appeared to me.

Why is the burden of proof always on the believer?

If you’re going to dismiss Easter as a fool’s day, fine, but then you have to explain how it is that, right after the resurrection, an Ivy League fundamentalist about God’s Law, a Pharisee, began to willfully break the first and most important commandment by worshipping a man- a dead man at that- as God.

You also have to account for how else it could’ve happened that Paul was not only forgiven by the first Christians, whom he had persecuted, he was given authority by them. They made him an Apostle. The Apostle Peter even referred to Paul’s writing as scripture, the Word of God.

Look, I’m not an idiot. In fact, as an Enneagram 8, I’m convinced I’m smarter than all of you. I’m not a moron.

I know modern medicine and science cannot explain the resurrection of Jesus, but it’s intellectually dishonest to turn the resurrection message into a metaphor.

You don’t have to believe it.

But you owe it to the first Christians to take their testimony or leave it. 

Do not turn it into something else entirely.

They didn’t believe the resurrection message was a metaphor or a myth.

They didn’t think Easter was really about timeless truths.

They thought it was the truth.

That it actually happened.

In history.

At Jerusalem, under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, on the Sunday morning after the Passover when he died between noon and 3 in 33AD. Around tea time, as Monty Python’s Life of Brian puts it.

All the little details, they’re there to reinforce to you that it happened. In history.

And if it didn’t happen, all the butterflies and sentimentalities in the world can’t mask over the fact that not only are we wasting our time here every Sunday, we are worse than liars.

We’re still in our sins.

According to Russ Hudson, Enneagram 8’s can be blunt and the “How to Get Along with Me” section of my results suggests that you not take my to-the-point-ness personally. So don’t get offended when I tell you that you can chalk up Easter to a fool’s day and be about your brunch and your bunnies, that’s fine.

You don’t have to believe it.

But you do have to understand that the New Testament understands the resurrection of Jesus Christ not as a myth or a metaphor but as an event in history.

You have to understand that the first Christians understood the resurrection of Christ as a happening because only then will you be able to distinguish what Christianity is from what Christianity is not.

And that’s a distinction most people don’t understand. A lot of Christians and a lot of churches even get it muddled.

Christianity is not a worldview. Christianity is not a philosophy. It’s not a social program or a political agenda. Christianity is not advice or a way of life or helpful lessons for your kids. Christianity is not a tradition of teachings or a set of spiritual practices.

     It is not a morality.

It’s news.

It’s news.

That’s why Paul uses the word “Gospel” to describe what is our non-negotiable, chief concern.

In ancient Rome, that word “Gospel” referred to the announcement that Caesar had conquered you and now he was not just your salad he was your god and now you had the privilege of paying taxes to cover the cost of his having colonized you.

     The Gospel was the announcement of what someone done that impacted your life.

Without you having done anything.

     You see, properly understood, Christianity is not a religion.

It’s a report.

It’s not a religion of what we must do for God and others. It’s a report of what God has done for us and others.

Every religion tells you what you must do for God and every religion tells you you should love your neighbor. That’s not unique; that’s moralism.

But only Christianity has the Gospel- this news, this announcement, of what God has done for you despite all your failures to love God or love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.

Only Christianity has the Gospel, which means, Christianity is the only religion that is potentially disprovable. Tomorrow if someone finds a thorn-scarred skull buried in Jerusalem somewhere, then we’ll close up shop and we will refund whatever you put in the offering plate. Dennis’ retirement fund be damned.

Only Christianity has this report of a happening in history, the Gospel.

But sometimes it seems like the Gospel is the only thing we don’t want to talk about as Christians.

In the Church-

     You’ll hear people tell you which candidate or what values to vote for- that’s not the Gospel.

You’ll hear how to be a better you or build a better world- that’s not the Gospel.

You’ll hear the latest issue you should advocate- that’s not the Gospel.

You’ll hear people tell you who you’re allowed to love or sleep with- that’s not the Gospel either.

     Scripture says the Gospel, not your politics; the Gospel, not service projects; the Gospel, not your spirituality, is of chief importance.

The Gospel is our most urgent endeavor.

This good news is the one gift, unique to the Church, that God has given us to offer the world.

And it is- good news.

Because of what Jesus did by his cross and resurrection, all your failures to do what Jesus would do are forgiven. One-way, once-for-all forgiveness for you.

That’s what Jesus did.

The tomb is empty so that you will remember that all your sins in his death are forgotten.

     Christ didn’t come to improve your life.

Christ came to end it.

End it in him on the cross and raise it to a newness where there is now and forever no condemnation.

That’s what Jesus did.

St. Paul says in another letter that Jesus Christ rose from the dead for your justification. In Christ, you were crucified with him. Your sin and your old self- it’s been left behind. Buried with him in his death. That’s what he did.

And by his resurrection your rap sheet is now as empty as his grave. And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his righteousness.

His perfect record. His perfect righteousness has become your permanent record. That’s the best news because it means it doesn’t matter if you’re an argumentative 8 like me or a security-seeking 6 or a pretense-keeping 3.

It doesn’t matter- now- you are not who you are or what you do. And you are not what you have done.

Because this Gospel, this report, announces:

You are now who Jesus is.

You are what he has done.

Perfect.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, he’s made you perfect by God’s way of reckoning.

According to the report the Enneagram Institute sent me, as an 8, I’m prone to putting too much pressure on myself.

I’m prone to taking charge and not trusting others to do their part.

So because he won’t refund my sixty bucks, I’m going to prove Russ Hudson and his RHETI 2.5 is a crock.

I’m going to go against type. I’m not going to try and do it all myself today. I’m not going to close this sermon with some awesome, uplifting story. I’m not going to conclude with any irrefutable practical takeaway for your daily life.

No, I’m going to stick it to Russ Hudson.

And I’m going to trust Jesus Christ, who is not dead, to keep his promise that, when we break this bread and drink from this cup, the news of what he has done for us in history gets into us and it changes us from the inside out.

So there, Russ Hudson.

No doing-it-all-on-my-own inspiration.

Just an invitation:

    Come to the table of our Risen Lord.

Eat. Drink. Be merry.

For you have already died.

And tomorrow, you live.

 

 

 

I was a guest on Scott Jones’ Synaxis podcast to talk about the lectionary scripture texts coming up for the 2nd Sunday of Lent. During the conversation, we reflected on using the Romans 4 lection, where Paul talks about faith being worded (‘reckoned’) to us as righteousness, to rethink Jesus’ command in Mark 8 to take up our cross and follow him.

If the only righteousness we possess comes to us as Christ’s own, by imputation not sanctification, then perhaps the mortification of self that Christ commands looks more like a continual revisiting of our justification. We take up our cross, in other words, by remembering, in word and sacrament, that on our own we have neither the desire nor the capacity to follow Jesus.

Here it is:

 

A Hole in Heaven

Jason Micheli —  February 19, 2018 — 3 Comments

Here’s my sermon for the first Sunday of Lent where I was the guest preacher at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, Va. The lectionary text is Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John but I chose to lean on Matthew’s fuller version of it.

Even though Blades of Glory is one of my favorite movies, I’ve steered clear of the Winter Olympics ever since my second year at UVA when, during a Halloween party, I was mistaken not once, not twice, but four times for Brian Boitano.

On the prowl for girls, I didn’t think I could afford for girls to confuse my costume for that of a gay figure skater. I had thought my purple crushed velvet tights and loose, flowing shirt- the sort worn by Meatloaf in the Bat Out of Hell video- gave me away as a dead-ringer for Hamlet, which, it occurs to me now, is just as gay.

But no, I got Brian Boitano. I didn’t have a sword.

And South Park had just gone viral the year before with an episode of the animated Olympian refereeing mortal combat between Jesus and Santa Claus.

What would Brian Boitano do in my situation?

Avoid the Winter Olympics ever since.

But this Winter Olympics a headline in the Washington Post grabbed me:

“She killed 115 people before the last Korean Olympics. Now she wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’”

The Post article tells the story of Kim Hyon-hui, a former North Korean spy, who, 30 years ago, boarded South Korean Flight 858 and got off in Baghdad during a layover, having left a bomb, disguised as a Panasonic radio, in the overhead bin.

All 115 passengers and crew were killed when the plane exploded over the Andaman Sea.

Kim Hyon-hui was 26 at the time.

Recruited by the Party as a student, she received physical and ideological training for 10 years before she was given orders to disrupt the Winter Olympics in South Korea by blowing up a plane full of energy workers on their way home to Seoul to visit their husbands and their wives and their children.

The cyanide cigarette she bit into when she was caught didn’t work, and she woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed with machine guns pointed at her.

Kim Hyon- hui attempted suicide again during her interrogation, and a year later a South Korean judge sentenced her to die.

But she didn’t die.

Today she’s a 56 year old mother of 2 teenage girls. She’s married to the agent who first apprehended her, but she’s never escaped the guilt and the shame of her trespass.

She escaped execution and, as she puts it, “escaped the wrath of the South Korean people when she offered them her repentance” but she still wonders if she’ll escape the wrath of God.

Kim Hyon-hui lives an ordinary life cooking and cleaning, raising her kids and going to church. She was pardoned by the South Korean president for her crimes, yet she remains haunted by the question: “Can my sins be pardoned?”

     “They probably won’t be,” she confessed to the reporter, “My sins probably won’t be forgiven. By God.”

The headline is what grabbed me. It could’ve been a different story, still with a similar headline. The headline could’ve read:

“He killed 17 people at Douglas High School. Now he wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’”

The headline could’ve read:

“They watched apathetic as 122 children got shot since Columbine (home of South Park) and they did nothing. Now they wonder: ‘Can our sins be pardoned?’”

     The headline emblazoned above today’s scripture text reads:

“Through hole in heaven, Father declares love with a dove. Wild-eyed prophet asks: ‘Can I baptize you?’”

‘Can I baptize you?’

The answer to all our questions about pardon come by noticing John the Baptist’s question: “‘I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?’

All 4 Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized alongside hypocrites and thieves and tax collectors colluding with the evil empire- a brood of vipers, John the Baptist calls them.

All 4 Gospels tell us about Jesus’ baptism; in fact, the only 2 events mentioned across all 4 Gospels are the baptism of Jesus by John and the death of Jesus by a cross- they’re connected. Mark doesn’t have an Easter encounter. John doesn’t have a Christmas story. But all of the Gospels have got a baptism story. Mark leaves out what Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’ baptism: that John initially objects and raises questions.

     ‘Baptize you? You’ve got it backwards, Jesus. How can I baptize you?’ 

John resists baptizing Jesus because John’s baptism was a work of repentance. John’s initial objection to baptizing Christ is important because it reminds us to distinguish between Jesus’ baptism and our baptism. John’s baptism was a work of repentance by which those who were condemned by the Law hoped to merit God’s mercy.

John’s baptism was a human act (repentance) intended to provoke a divine response (forgiveness). The water was a visible sign of your admission of guilt. But the water did not wash away your guilt.

John’s baptism did not make you righteous. John’s baptism signified repentance for your unrighteousness. But it could not make you righteous.

That’s why Jesus insists on submitting to John’s baptism. It’s not because Jesus needed to repent. Jesus is without sin, as such, he’s got no reason to be baptized. No, Jesus insists on baptism not because of any repenting Jesus needed to do but because of what John’s baptism could not do.

     John’s baptism could not make the unrighteous righteous before God.

“It is necessary,” Jesus tells John, “[not for me or my repentance] to fulfill all righteousness.” 

In other words, the winnowing fork judgement that John the Baptist had preached, Christ takes on in his baptism. The winnowing is in the water. With his baptism, Christ isn’t acknowledging his unrighteousness. He’s entering into ours. He’s not repenting. He’s repenting us.

     By plunging himself into John’s baptism-

Jesus enters down into the depths of our unrighteousness.

As Martin Luther said, at Christmas, he becomes our flesh but, at his baptism, he becomes our sin.

The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world does so by becoming a goat when he goes down into our unrighteousness and then carries it in him to Golgotha. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly with thieves beside him. He dies with the ungodly in him, with thieves all over him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism- the baptism of his death and resurrection- they may be made what the former baptism could never make them: righteous.

Right before God.

Justified.

As the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.” And as Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” 

Either headline could work as an alternative for what God declares with a dove through a hole in heaven.

     “Can my sins be pardoned? Probably not.” Kim Hyon-hui told the Post.

Probably not? Probably not!?

Look, I get the offense, I really do, but obviously that’s her shame talking because she’s not speaking Christian.

You only get an answer like ‘Probably not’ when you don’t understand the distinction between Jesus’ baptism by John and your own baptism by Jesus into him.

John’s baptism was a work we do- we’re the active agents in John’s baptism.

John’s baptism was a work we do in order to solicit God’s pardon.

Our baptism is a work God does.

     Our baptism is not a work that solicits God’s pardon.

     It celebrates the work God has already done to pardon us.

Once.

For all.

For everything.

Our baptism is not an act of repentance. Our baptism incorporates us into the act by which God repented us into righteousness.

“Probably not?”

It’s John’s kind of baptism that produces “probably not” because John’s baptism is just a token of your contrition. It’s not a visible pledge of your pardon. John’s baptism leaves you in your sin, hoping that God will forgive you.

But your baptism is not John’s baptism.

By your baptism you are not in your sin- though a sinner you are- because, by your baptism, you are in Christ.

Probably not– NO.

That’s the distinction between Jesus’ baptism and your own baptism.

In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness.

In your baptism, you enter into Christ.

In Christ, you’re crucified with him, Paul says.

Your sin and your old self- it’s left behind, Paul says.

Buried with him in his death.

And by his resurrection your rap sheet is now as empty as his tomb.

And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his righteousness.

His perfect record.

His perfect righteousness has become your permanent record.

There is no place on that record for our “Probably nots.” Because if you have been baptized into this baptism, then you are in Christ. And if you are in Christ, then there is now no condemnation.

No matter who it is who is in Christ, there is for them no condemnation.

No matter what you’ve done it cannot dilute what God has done.

In Christ.

And it cannot dilute what God has done to you by drowning you into him.

The answer to Kim’s question about her sins being pardoned- it requires another question: ‘Have you been baptized?’

Because if so, whether as a baby or a born-again, your sins have already been pardoned. Because by your baptism you are in Jesus Christ, who is himself the pardon of God. At his baptism, a hole in heaven declared him to be loved. And by your baptism into the holes of his hands and his side, heaven is opened to you- you, though you belong to a brood of vipers, are beloved.

     “Can his sins be pardoned?”

     Surely not. 

One of my friends, a member of my church, spends half his year in Florida. He coaches cross-country at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

He was on a group text thread with his runners as they fled.

And bled.

He messaged me that night to give me the names of his kids who were still in surgery and asked me to add them to the prayer list.

“Pray for Maddie. She has a collapsed lung. She was shot in the arm and the leg and the back. Her ribs are shattered.

I’m not in denial or shock. I’m not depressed. I’m just angry. I’m just really, really angry, and I’m angry at the thought that Nikolas Cruz could be forgiven for what he did.

If this is blasphemy so be it:

Right now, GRACE OFFENDS ME.”

     Don’t let the sprinkling fool you.

     What we do with water is not sentimental.

     It’s outrage-ous.

Our reconciliation by grace through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection- it can’t be reconciled with any of our notions of right. What we mean by what we do with water- it’s not sentimental nonsense (though it may be nonsense). A message that makes sense, message that squares with the headlines, would be:

Your sins are forgiven if

Your sins are forgiven provided that…

Your sins are forgiven as long as…

You repent. You make amends. You pay back what you’ve taken.

But the promise of the Gospel that comes attached to water and wine and bread is that because you have been baptized in to Christ’s death and resurrection; therefore, your sins are forgiven.

The grammar of grace is Because/Therefore not If/Then.

It makes no sense, but if you add anything to the forgiveness of sins, a single qualifier or condition, you’ve smashed the Gospel to smithereens.

Because the grace of God in Jesus Christ-

It isn’t expensive. It is even cheap. It’s free.

     And grace begins exactly where we we think it should end.

———————-

Can his sins be pardoned? 

Has he been baptized?

———————-

     You can object. It is offensive. It is outrage-ous. After this week it sticks in my mouth too. I’m right there with you. If God’s grace for sinners offends you, if his pardon seems awful instead of amazing, I’m right there with you. It’s just, we should notice where we are in our indignation:

We’re standing outside the party our Father’s decided to throw for our rotten, wretch of a brother.

It’s offensive, I know. And not to take the edge off of it, but I wonder if maybe the offense is also the antidote.

In a different interview, Kim Hyon-hui reflects on how overwhelmed she felt by the gratuitous (her word) pardon she received from the people of South Korea:

“As a spy in North Korea, I was brainwashed. I was a robot. The only thing that might have been powerful enough to prevent me from committing my trespass would have been to know the possibility of such a pardon.”

Maybe the possibility of a pardon so gratuitous it offends- maybe that’s the only antidote powerful enough to stop us in our trespasses.

 

 

 

 

This is Us

Jason Micheli —  February 12, 2018 — Leave a comment

I closed out our Epiphany series through Galatians by tackling my least favorite passage of scripture, excepting Proverbs and James.

“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”  

Thanks to having binge-watched season 7 of Game of Thrones this weekend I can scratch fornication off of Paul’s list.

And Thursday afternoon I had a meeting with Steve, one of our lay leaders, so, as inexorable as water around a rock, I had quarrels, factions, and dissension checked off that list in under an hour.

You can ask Ali about my envy. She’ll tell you it’s not easy for me to be green.

The bible tells you so about my idolatry but my bank account and my Facebook feed and my every day could confirm it for you.

Just last week we took our boys to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios and we bought both of them not only magical wands but robes- sorcerer’s robes- and not even robes from House Gryffindor, the good guys, but from Slytherin, the House of the Dark Lord.

So, sorcery? Check

Not to mention, this was Orlando, where even 2 traveler’s tablets of Advil at Disney World cost $11.00, therefore those 2 wands and those 2 sorcerer’s robes set me back- before tax- approximately $900.00.

But Ali insisted we were there “to make memories.”

Anger.

Check.

Don’t forget, I went to UVA and Princeton where drunkenness and carousing and licentiousness are practically club sports.

So check and check and check.

And thanks to Trump’s stock market- I mean, Obama’s stock market- I can cross off enmity and strife and even impure thoughts of rage and violence.

When it comes to the works of the flesh, I’ve got them covered.

If this were a Honey-Do List, I’ve done them all.

I’m like a brown-noser of bad behavior.

And don’t lie- that’s on another naughty list- you’ve got this list pretty well covered too. Sure, given how sexy I am it’s not your fault I afflict you with impure, licentious thoughts, but the other items on this list- those are on you.Anger, quarrels, dissension, factions- you all check those off just by how you treat Dennis on a day-to-day basis.

And I’ve heard about the adult pool parties in the summer (Riverside Gardens, Stratford Landing, I’m looking at you). Nearly all of you should take out your bibles and a red pen right now and scratch off drunkenness, carousing, and maybe fornication too.

Seriously, I’ve been here long enough to know that most of you all are just one bad day away from tales that would make the tabloids if you were famous.

Most of you would love to have a John Kelly keeping your secrets.

I’ve got this list covered and so do you. This list- this is us.

What about that other list?

“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

How are you doing with that list?

Generosity? How about we pass the offering plate again and then ask you to answer?

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe you don’t hear this list as an accusation. Maybe you don’t think Christianity is easier said than done. Maybe for you every Sunday here doesn’t feel like an appointment with a Great Physician who lies and tells you you won’t feel a thing.

If so, congratulations. Gold star to you.

As of me, right after the entire Book of James, without a doubt, this is my least favorite piece of scripture. Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on this list because then I’d have to be honest with you. I’d have to own up to the fact that not even my own mother would use 8 of those 9 attributes to describe me.

I just turned 40.

I’ve been a Christian- or at least I was thought I was a Christian- for 22 years. I have 2 theology degrees. I have thousands of books on Christianity in my office. I know several psalms by heart, and I can recite John 13 from memory- in Greek. But if this is what a genuine, authentic, Holy Spirit-filled Christian does on a daily basis, I’m a fraud.

I mean, I’ve got ‘love’ down, I guess.

I love my kids.

Of course, I love my kids. How could I not? They think I’m awesome.

I tell my wife I love her, and sometimes I show her it’s true. I tell myself I love God and I tell you that I even comprehend what that means. I’m good at preaching about how we should love our enemies, but I’m not even sure if ‘Chase’ is my neighbor’s first name or last. So, I’ve got ‘love’ down.

22 years and, at best, as far as I can tell, on a consistent basis I’m 1 for 9.

If 9/9 is the expectation for who we will be and what we will do on Jesus, then Jesus just ought to give back the heart I gave to him all those years ago. Because even my mommy would tell you, my basket of fruit is so bare nothing but blind faith could ever lead you to believe it won’t always be so.

Forget crock-pots and melodrama, staring down 1/9- this is us. This is us.

Dorothy Fortenberry is a Hollywood screenwriter who writes The Handmaid’s Tale for Hulu. In post-Christian California, Fortenberry is also unabashedly religious not spiritual. In an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, she explains her odd habit of going to church every Sunday.

She writes:

“The single most annoying thing a nonreligious person can say, in my opinion, isn’t that religion is oppressive or that religious people are brainwashed.

It’s the kind, patronizing way that nonreligious people have of saying, “You know, sometimes I wish I were religious. It must be so comforting.”

I do not find religion to be comforting in the way that I think nonreligious people mean it.

It is not comforting to know quite as much as I do about how weaselly and weak-willed I am when it comes to being as generous as Jesus demands.

Thanks to church, I have a much stronger sense of the sort of person I would like to be, and every Sunday I am forced to confront all the ways in which I fail, daily.

Nothing promotes self-awareness like turning down an opportunity to bring children to visit their incarcerated parents. Or avoiding shifts at the food bank. Or calculating just how much I will put in the collection basket.

Thanks to church, I have looked deeply into my own heart and found it to be of merely small-to-medium size.

None of this is particularly comforting.

I come to sit next to people, well aware of all we don’t have in common, and face together in the same direction because we’re all broken individuals united only by our brokenness, traveling together to ask to be fixed. It’s like a subway car. It’s like the DMV.

Church is like The Wizard of Oz: we are each missing something, and there is a person in a flowing robe whom we trust to hand over the promise that the something we’re missing will be provided.”

Note the passive voice.

We’re all missing something and we’re here to receive the promise that the something we’re missing will be provided.

When we hear this list as telling us who we should be or what we ought to do- in Paul’s terms- we twist this from Gospel back into Law.

     As a Christian, you should be generous. As a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, you ought to be patient and kind. Become more gentle and joy-filled! That way of hearing turns this list into the Law.

And that’s my first point.

(I know, another 3-point sermon! I may not be kind but I can be consistent.)

This is my first point:

This list is not the Law.

It is descriptive; it is not prescriptive. It’s proclamation; it’s not exhortation. They are indicatives. They are not imperatives. Paul says: “The fruit of the Spirit is patience.” Paul does not say: “Become more patient.” To turn the fruit of the Spirit into aspirations or expectations of who you will be or what you will do as a Christian is to stumble back into the Law just like the Galatians.

As Paul said earlier, if the Law is in any way necessary for us to follow then Jesus Christ died for absolutely no reason.

To hear this list as goals or, worse, a code of conduct is to hear it as Law, and the Law, Paul says, always accuses, reminding you of who you’re not, what you’re lacking, how inadequate and imperfect and incomplete you are.

As Law, this list just reinforces the message you see and hear in ads 3,000 times a day: You’re not good enough.

If it’s Law then this just accuses us because there’s always more money you could’ve left in the plate, there’s always someone for whom you have neither patience nor kindness, there’s always days- if you’re like me, whole weeks even- when you have no joy.

But this list is not Law and your lack of joy or gentleness does not make you an incomplete or inauthentic Christian.

Because notice- After Paul describes the works of the flesh, the works we do, Paul doesn’t pivot to our ‘works of faithfulness.’ Paul doesn’t say ‘the works of the flesh are these…but the works of faith are these…’ No, he changes the voice completely.

He shifts from the active voice to a passive image: fruit. He says Fruit of the Spirit not Works of Faith.

     You see, the opposite of our vice isn’t our virtue.

The opposite of our vice is the vine of which we are but the branches. When Paul speaks of our life lived in light of the Gospel, he shifts to a passive image.

 What you do not hear in any vineyard is the sound of anyone’s effort.

Except the Gardener.

Fruit do not grow themselves; fruit are the byproduct of a plant made healthy. To think that you’re responsible for cultivating joy and kindness in your life now that you’re a Christian is to miss Paul’s entire point- his point that, apart from Christ’s bleeding and dying for you, you are dead in your sins.

Apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ you are a dead plant, but by your baptism you have been made alive such that now in you and through you the Holy Spirit can grow fruit.

     This list is not the Law because the fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of the Gospel.

It’s not fruit you gotta go get or do. It’s passive. It’s not what you do but what the pardon of God produces in you in spite of still sinful you.

In quantifying, life-hacking culture of constant self-improvement, this passive image of fruit might be the most counter-cultural part of Christianity. It’s counter to much of Christian culture too. On the Left and the Right, so much of Christianity nowadays is just another version of what’s on your Fitbit. It’s all about behavior modification.

But what Paul is getting at here in his list is not the Law. It’s not about you becoming a better you. Tomato plants do not have agency. It’s not about you becoming a better you. It’s about God making you new. Joy, gentleness, peace and patience- these are not the attributes by which you work your way to heaven. This is the work heaven is doing in you here on earth.

And that’s my second point:

    The fruit of the Spirit are for your neighbor.

When you hear Paul’s list as Law, you think that this is prescription for who you must be and what you must do in order to be right before God.

But the Gospel is that Christ by his obedience has fulfilled all the righteousness that the Law requires of you. He’s fulfilled the demands of the Law for you. And he bore all your failures to follow the Law upon the cross. Because of Jesus Christ, though you are not, God reckons you as righteous. God credits Christ’s righteousness to you as though it were your own.

The Law, Paul has said, no longer has any power to condemn you. There is now, Paul says in Romans, no condemnation for those who are in Christ and to whom his righteousness has been imputed. Your sins are forgiven, once for all.

     You are fit for heaven just as you are:

impatient and unkind, frequently faithless, and often harsh and out of control.

Every work of faith has already been done for you. As gift. And its yours by faith not by works.

No work you do, no fruit you yield, adds anything to what Christ has already done for you. Everything. He’s done everything already.

Therefore

     God’s not counting. God’s forgotten how to count.

The God who longer counts your trespasses isn’t counting your good works either (thank God).

     God’s neither a score-keeper nor a fruit counter. 

The Gospel is that you are justified in Christ alone by grace alone through faith. Alone.

Ergo-

The fruit of the Gospel is not for your justification. It’s for your neighbor. It’s a community garden the Spirit is growing in you.

God doesn’t need your love or your peace or your patience. God certainly doesn’t need your generosity. God doesn’t need any of them, but your neighbor does.

I mean, Paul’s repeated it like 100 times thus far:

For freedom Christ has set you free.

Christ didn’t set you free for fruit.

Christ freed you for freedom. Not for a return on his investment.

Christ freed you for freedom. Not so you can clean yourself up and get your act together.

Christ freed you for freedom. Not so you can go out and earn back what he paid for you. And not so you can build a Kingdom only he can bring.

Paul’s not blinking and he’s not BS-ing.

For freedom Christ has set you free.

There’s no one else you have to be before God.

And there’s nothing else you have to do for God.

But for the sake of your neighbor…God will yet make you loving and gentle and joyous.

You see, the question that the fruit of the Spirit should provoke in you is NOT “What must I do now that God has saved me?”

No, the question the fruit of the Spirit should lead you to ask is this one: “What work is God doing in me and through me-in spite of sinful me- for the sake of my neighbor?” And the answer to that question can only come to us by the same route our justification comes: by faith alone.

And that leads to my final point: the fruit of the Spirit teach us that not only are you justified by faith apart from your works, very often you’re justified by faith apart from your everyday experience.

By faith apart from your feelings.

Forget Christmas and the resurrection, in no small part, what it means to have faith is to believe about you what your feelings can’t seem to corroborate.

The biggest obstacle to faith isn’t science- only an idiot would think that.

The biggest obstacle to faith is your mirror.

I know it about a whole lot of you. Surely you know it about you too. You’re not always kind or patient or generous.

Yet the Gospel promises and the Gospel invites you to believe that the Holy Spirit is at work like a patient Gardener to yield in you and harvest from you kindness and patience and generosity.

And that’s an even bigger leap of faith than it sounds because because the word Paul uses for ‘fruit’ in Greek is singular. As in, it’s all one gift: Love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and all the rest. God’s working all of it, every one of them, in you.  Even though you might feel at best you have only a few of them.

God’s working all of them, every one of them, in you. Which makes the Spirit’s work in you is as mysterious and invisible as what the Spirit does to water and wine and bread and the word.

     The fruit of the Spirit is a matter of faith not feeling.

By your baptism in to his death and resurrection, you are in Jesus Christ.

You are.

No ifs, ands, or buts. Nothing else is necessary.

And if you are in Christ, then the Spirit is at work in you.

No exceptions. No conditions. No qualifications.

No matter what your life looks like

No matter what you see when you look into the mirror

No matter how up and down, there and back again, is your faith

No matter how bare feel your basket to be.

If you are in Christ, Christ’s Spirit is in you.

And the pardon of God is powerful to produce in you what your eyes cannot see and what your feelings cannot confirm.

God works in mysterious ways, we say all the time without realizing each of us who are in Jesus Christ are one of those mysteries.

Joy, peace, love, gentleness…as unbelievable as seems…this is us.

Dorothy Fortenberry is on in the mystery and puts it better than me:

“Being a screenwriter in Los Angeles is like being on a perpetual second date with everyone you know. You strive to be your most charming, delightful, quirky-but-not-damaged self because you never know what will come of the encounter.

Being on a perpetual second date can get exhausting.

Constantly feeling that you should be meeting people, impressing people, shocking people (just the right amount) is a strange way to live your life.

And one of the reasons that I go to church is that church is the opposite of that.

I do not impress anyone at church. I do not say anything surprising or charming, because the things I say are rote responses that someone else decided on centuries ago.

I am not special at church, and this is the point. Because (according to the ridiculous, generous, imperfectly applied rules of my religion) we are all equally bad and equally beloved children of God.

We are all exactly the same amount of sinful and special. The things that I feel proud of can’t help me here, and the things that I feel ashamed by are beside the point.

I’m a person but, for 60 minutes, I’m not a personality. Even better, I’m not my personality because Church is not about how I feel.

It’s about faith.

It’s about looking at the light until our eyes water, waiting to receive the promise that the something missing in us (love or joy, or peace) will be provided.

 

 

 

Here’s my sermon from Galatians 3 for this weekend.

I spent this Tuesday at the infusion center near Alexandria Hospital receiving my latest monthly maintenance chemo to keep the cancer at bay.

Now if you’ll feel really bad if you fall asleep during my sermon.

An average of 4 days a week for a year and twice a month ever since, I’ve been to the infusion center so often my iPhone recognizes the “Cancer Specialists” WIFI network. On Tuesday my nurse poked around for a vein big enough to handle the chemo. It sounds wimpy but you get to the point where you’re just tired of being sick and stuck all the time with needles.

On one of the two TV’s in the lab every commercial break- I’m not exaggerating- featured an advertisement from Lexington Plastic Surgeons, who, according to the voiceover pitchman, have more offices around the country than Skynet.

“Do you think I’d look good if I got a Brazilian Butt Lift?” I asked my nurse as she clamped the needle down into my arm.

And for the record, yes, I was flirting.

“Um…maybe?” she replied, “You’re not really my type, butt lift or no butt lift.”

The other TV in the lab was playing Rachel Ray’s cooking show. Every commercial break of Rachel’s show featured a spot selling Rachel Ray’s own line of boutique dog food, which if you’re counting at home is reason #93 to hate Rachel Ray.

“Do you think it strange that in between recipes for people food Rachel Ray is also selling dog food? I mean, are those transferable skills?” I asked my nurse.

She laughed as she hung my bag of pre-meds. She had short buzzed hair that she’d dyed turquoise that matched the gem stud in her nostril and complemented the purple cat-eye glasses on her nose.

Looking at the tattoo on my arm, she told me that her girlfriend was a tattoo artist.

“We’re thinking of getting married, my girlfriend and me,” she said, “You’re a priest, right? You probably think we’re sinners?”

She was asking, I noticed, not accusing.

“If you’re going to ask me these sorts of questions, I think you should return my copay.”

But she just sat on the wheeled stool next to me, waiting on me.

“Sinners? Yes.” I said.

And then added: “But no more than me.”

She looked confused, like what I’d said wasn’t as bad as she’d feared and not as good as she’d hoped.

“Look,” I said, “Christians have a simple formula:

‘People are sinners.

Christians are people.

Christians are sinners.’

“So yeah, no more than me.”

She nodded and flicked the tube to start the drip.

Another commercial from Skynet came on the television, this one for breast augmentation and eyebrow lifts and wrinkle removing along with a lie about defying time and aging.

“It’s kind of a waste of their ad budget to have their commercials played in here, don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s kind of obvious and unavoidable here that nobody is getting out life alive but that’s exactly what Skynet is promising.”

“Skynet?”

“Nevermind.”

She handed me a little plastic cup of pills (meds to minimize the tremors the chemo causes) and she said:

“Can I ask you, since you brought it up, if you died- or, when you die- do you know where you’ll go?”

“What are you?” I asked, “Some sort of undercover lesbian evangelist?”

She smiled just a little.

“No, I’ve just never been that religious and I don’t know how you know, you know, that you’ll go to heaven or be with God or whatever.”

I nodded yes.

“You’re really certain?” she asked me. She was studying me, the way she did at the end of infusions to make sure I was okay to drive home.

She was studying me. So I said it: “Yes.”

“How can you be so sure? How can you have that much faith?”

I shrugged my shoulders and I said: “I dunno.”

———————-

     Seriously, your duly ordained reverend shrugged his shoulders and said: “I dunno.” No wonder Young Life rejected me as a leader in college. A question like that should be my bible bread and butter.

You people pay me a salary and benefits- too much, Lew says- but someone asks me point blank about faith and heaven and eternal life and the best I can do is shrug my shoulders and fart out an “I dunno.”

I was so inarticulate with her you’d think it would take a miracle for me to give her the Gospel.

———————-

     The Apostle Paul says that God has spoken to us in two different words, Law and Gospel, that’s what he’s getting at in the end of our reading today.

And in another of his epistles, Paul urges believers to learn how to rightly divide the Word between Law and Gospel.

And here in today’s text in Galatians 3 we see one of the reasons why it’s so important for us to distinguish between the Law and the Gospel.

The Law does not bring the Holy Spirit:

“Answer me one question: did you receive the Holy Spirit by keeping the Law or by believing the Gospel?”

      It’s not just that what you do for God does nothing for you and your standing before God; it’s that the Holy Spirit does not come to you through what you do for God.

The Holy Spirit does not come through your acts of charity or compassion. The Holy Spirit does not come through your acts of piety or hospitality. The Holy Spirit does not come through your spirituality.

Or your service to the poor. Or your standing up for social justice.

Obeying the Law does not bring the Holy Spirit. Following the Sermon on the Mount does not bring the Holy Spirit. Imitating Jesus does not bring the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit comes to us not by what we do. The Holy Spirit only comes to us by trusting the promise that all has been done. By Christ. That’s Paul’s point here in Galatians, that in exchanging the Gospel for the Law they’ve exorcised the Spirit:

“When God gives you the Spirit…is it because you keep the Law, or is it because you believe the Gospel?”

Those who were best at discipleship and bible study and prayer nailed God to a tree.

If that doesn’t reveal the Law’s inability to make you righteous and justified then the gift of the Holy Spirit should be a convincing Exhibit B.

That’s what Paul is arguing at top of chapter 3:

“It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified…Did you receive the Holy Spirit by doing the works of the Law or by faith in the Gospel you heard?”

The Holy Spirit was present in thunder and fire and wind at the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai.

But after that first Pentecost on Mt. Sinai, the Holy Spirit did not come to anyone through following the Law.

Not to Moses or the Prophets. Not to John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit did not come even to Paul back when he was Saul and following the Law so fully as to be blameless before it.

The Holy Spirit did not come to anyone doing the Law. The Holy Spirit only came to those who trusted the Gospel.

When Peter preached the Gospel at the second Pentecost and the crowds received it by faith, the Holy Spirit fell upon them. When Phillip was explaining the Gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch, the Holy Spirit came to him and baptized him, this most untouchable of outsiders. While Peter was sharing the Gospel with Cornelius, a Roman centurion, the Holy Spirit came over him, the enemy. And the Galatians- they received not only the Gospel from Paul but the Holy Spirit too, Gentiles all of them.

     We receive the Holy Spirit through the Gospel not the Law.

     We receive the Holy Spirit through trusting in what Christ has done for us not in our own doing for Christ.

Through faith not works- not, even, your work of worship.

We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as this mysterious, mystical, subjective spirit inside of us, and, as a consequence, people like us- people who tend not to raise their hands during hymns or dance in the aisles or speak in tongues- tend not to speak about the Holy Spirit.

Because we don’t look or act or worship like charismatics, we all quietly conspire to assume that we must not be spirit-filled.

You can take it from the reverend: that’s nonsense.

Mysterious and mystical and subjective- emotional: nothing could be further from how St. Paul and even Jesus talk about the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is not primarily something we experience subjectively inside of us because the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to mediate something that is objective, outside of us, something that is historical before it is emotional: Jesus Christ.

     The Holy Spirit comes with the Gospel not the Law because the Holy Spirit mediates the work of Christ promised in the Gospel.

The Holy Spirit isn’t just any spirit but the Spirit of the Crucified Christ.

The Holy Spirit is the abiding presence in our world of the absent Christ.

How Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit is how Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room:

“The Holy Spirit will convict the world about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father;  about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”

According to Jesus explicitly and echoed by St. Paul, the Holy Spirit, as the presence of the absent Christ, mediates the work of Christ to us and the Holy Spirit does so in 3 ways.

1. The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

2. The Holy Spirit mediates the priestly work of Christ.

3. The Holy Spirit mediates the work of Christ as King.

I thought I’d preach another 3-point sermon just to show off how I can keep my New Year’s resolutions longer than you.

So my first point…

———————-

    The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

Or, as Jesus puts it in the Upper Room, the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin. The role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, therefore, is not experiential but ethical. It’s not the role of the Holy Spirit to give you a transcendent personal experience; the golden calf gave God’s People a transcendent personal experience.

     Ignore your Pentecostal in-laws.

     Your emotions are not reliable evidence of the Holy Spirit’s activity in your life.

     But your contrition is.

Because Jesus says it’s the Holy Spirit’s work to teach you about yourself.

It’s the Spirit’s work to show you, prophetically, the truth about you and the world to which, at best, you’re a guilty bystander.

The Holy Spirit’s purpose is not like Kevin Bacon’s in Footloose.

It’s not the Holy Spirit’s work to break through your inhibitions and get you to dance and sing with abandon. King David did that in front of the ark and that story ends as badly as it did for Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It’s not the Holy Spirit’s work to break through your inhibitions. It’s the Holy Spirit’s work to break down your lies and your self-justifications.

To cut you, as the Spirit did at Pentecost, to the heart.

This is why Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate, as in, the Attorney. The Holy Spirit prosecutes Christ’s case against our greedy, eye-for-an-eye world of white-washed tombs. And the Holy Spirit does so by cutting us and speaking the accusation of the Law into our broken hearts.

I know for you baby-boomers who have an overly optimistic self-estimation (even after the Clinton administration) that any talk of sin turns you off, but the Holy Spirit’s work to convict us of the s-word isn’t bad news.

So often when we become aware of our sin we suppose that God must be angry with us or far off from us.

No. Your awareness of your sin is all the evidence you need that God is nearer to you than you are to yourself.

For self-deceivers like us- if you can look yourself in the mirror and know that you don’t measure up, that you need to be forgiven, that’s an achievement. You’ve outdone even the President Trump.

To know you need forgiven- that’s proof the Holy Spirit is at work in you.

For self-justifiers like us- if you can read the newspaper and name racism as sin, sexism as sin, nationalism as sin, in a culture of fake fake news that’s an accomplishment.

Not everyone can do that- that’s proof of the Spirit of the Crucified Christ working on you.

————————-

     But the Holy Spirit doesn’t just convict us of our sin, the Holy Spirit comforts us as well, which brings me to my second point.

The Holy Spirit mediates to us the priestly work of Christ.

Jesus in the Upper Room calls the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, the Comforter, but Jesus doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit is like Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, there for you to call whenever you’re feeling sad and lonely.

Jesus doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit is a hug from heaven anytime you need one.

Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Comforter in the sense that, after convicting us of our sin, the Holy Spirit mediates to us the comfort accomplished by Christ our Great High Priest.

That is, the Holy Spirit assures us of Christ as the forgiveness of our sins and the source of all our righteousness.

Contrary to how Christians often (mis)speak, the Holy Spirit is not in you. Your conscience is in you. And the Holy Spirit, who is outside of you, speaks into you. Into your conscience.

As Martin Luther said, the Holy Spirit mediates Christ’s priestly work to us by being a Preacher, that if Christ and his Cross are the pledge of the Father’s love for you, then the Holy Spirit is the Preacher of that promise.

And like any preacher of the Church, the Holy Spirit has a particular promise to proclaim, and the Holy Spirit preaches that particular promise by attaching to particular things: to the Word, to Water, to Wine and Bread.

And, heads up, this particular work of the Preacher called Holy Spirit is how you can call BS on counterfeit preachers like Joel Osteen, who speaks of the Spirit through his toothy vacant smile but even while speaking of the Spirit neglects to speak of our sinfulness.

Joel O (baby-boomer) says sin is a downer.

And instead of Christ’s righteousness, Joel O invokes the Holy Spirit so that we can accrue our own righteousness, of which prosperity is the sign.

The particular work of the Preacher called Holy Spirit is how you can call foul on the TV preachers. Ditto the Jerry Falwells and the Franklin Grahams and the Al Sharptons. The Holy Spirit might be an accuser of our politics. But the Holy Spirit is not a Preacher of our politics.

Like me, the Holy Spirit has a particular promise to proclaim to you:

Cross and Resurrection

Grace

The Gospel:

The forgiveness of your sins

The gift of Christ’s righteousness reckoned as your own

Despite how trendy it is to say today, the Holy Spirit does not speak a new word. The Spirit is still speaking, but the Spirit speaks the same word, over and over, in new and different ways. The One by whom the Word was made flesh is now the Preacher of the Gospel Word to our flesh.

———————-

     And St. Paul says that Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, frees us from captivity under the Law to be his subjects under grace, which brings me to my final point.

The Holy Spirit mediates to us the work of Christ as King.

As Jesus says of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room, the Spirit “will prove the ruler of this world wrong for the ruler of this world has been condemned.” 

He’s talking about Satan, whom St. Paul calls the Power of Sin, who- in case you haven’t read the newspapers or checked Twitter lately- doesn’t appear to have been deposed.

Because our world in no way looks like anyone has defeated the Power of Sin, the Holy Spirit gives us faith.

When Protestant Christians speak of the solas, faith alone and scripture alone, this is what we mean. We mean that only by faith alone can we possibly believe the Good News isn’t fake news. Because everywhere our eyes would have us believe the opposite.

———————-

     When St. Paul writes about the curse of Christ’s cross and our redemption, he uses the aorist tense; that is, his cross and our redemption are concurrent.

They happen at the same time.

Likewise, when Paul speaks of the Galatians receiving the Gospel in faith and their receiving the Holy Spirit, he uses the aorist again.

They’re concurrent.

———————-

     The Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith.

They’re concurrent, which means our faith in the Gospel is not our doing. Our faith is not another work of the Law because our faith is not our work. It’s not an accomplishment.

Which gets back to my undercover lesbian evangelist nurse-

Maybe my pathetic dribbler of an answer to her question was accidentally more biblical and Yoda-like than I intended. Because if the Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith, then “I dunno” isn’t a half-bad answer for me or for you.

Whether your faith is the size of a mountain or a mustard seed, it doesn’t much matter because you didn’t muster it up.

It’s all miracle.

Look, I used to hate questions like the one my nurse asked me Tuesday: “If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?”

Like every good liberal Mainline Christian, I used to scoff at questions like that from born-agains and street preachers.

I used to dismiss those questions as terrible reductions of Christianity. And they are reductionistic, sure.

Maybe it’s because I’ve got the medical bills to prove that eternity’s no longer abstraction for me, but, while the question is a reduction of the Gospel, it’s also true that if you can’t answer the question simply and straight-up then you don’t understand the Gospel.

It’s another simple formula:

     Your sins are forgiven.

Christ’s righteousness is your own.

Ergo, as far as eternity goes, you already have everything necessary.

     How much faith or how little faith you have in that matters not at all because you are saved not by the amount of your faith but by the object of your faith:

Jesus Christ.

And whatever sized faith you have to receive this news you’re sitting on a miracle. It’s not your doing. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit.

So if that undercover lesbian evangelist nurse ever asks you that same question, like Peter Venkman advises in Ghostbusters: For God’s sake, say yes.

Say yes:

With water the Holy Spirit drowned me in Christ’s death for my sins.

And with water the Holy Spirit raised me up to give me Christ’s righteousness for my heaven.

And even now the Holy Spirit gives me the miracle of faith to trust what my eyes cannot on their own believe.

Say yes.

Whether you say it sure of yourself or in spite of yourself, that you can say it at all is a miracle.

For the season of Epiphany, we’re preaching our way through Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Certainly it’s Romans in utero. Possibly it’s the most revolutionary book of the New Testament. The text for this Sunday was Galatians 1.3-9, 2.21:

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!

As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

Shame on you-

All of you who’ve already kicked your Christmas trees to the curb like first wives and old lawn mowers, shame on you.

You all practically begin celebrating Christmas during Lent so the least you can do is keep the tree up until the season of Christmas is over.

Shame on you- Christmas is only now over.

Today, on the liturgical calendar, it’s the Feast of the Epiphany, the high holy day when the magi bring their gifts to the Christ child in his golden fleece diapers.

Epiphany always falls after the 12th Day of Christmas because it actually takes 12 days to sing all 5 verses of “We Three Kings.”

As a holiday, Epiphany is right up there with Ash Wednesday in terms of what it says about you and me. The name of the holiday says it all: Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday says that the grime outside on your forehead matches the grime inside in you, and the wages of sin is death; ergo, from dust you came and to dust you shall return. Have a nice day.

Ash Wednesday- the takeaway for the day is built into the name.

Likewise, “Epiphany.”

Epiphany reminds us that you and I require one, an epiphany.

The name says it all.

Epiphany says that our situation before God is such that we cannot come to God or discover God- much less, follow God or have faith in God on our own, by our own lights, or through any innate ability that we possess.

We need an epiphany to discover the true God.

Epiphany says:

No-

You cannot find the true God on the golf course.

It doesn’t matter if you’re spiritual but not religious because neither spirituality nor religion can convey the Incarnate God to you.

Generic meditation cannot mediate the meaning of Christ and him crucified to you.

The takeaway for the day is in the name.

Just as the magi needed God to manipulate a Star in order to meet Christ, we need an epiphany; that is, we require a revelation from outside of us.

Epiphany is the opposite of what Luke Skywalker tells Rey in the Last Jedi just before Luke dies (oops). Luke tells Rey that the ability to find the Force lies within her.

Epiphany calls BS on Luke.

Epiphany insists that the Gospel is not like the Force.

The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us, is not innate inside of us. The Gospel, the Apostle Paul says, is the power of God breaking into our world from outside of us, beyond us, which brings me to my first point.

I know, I never preach 3-point sermons but, hey, new year, new you, right?

———————-

     My first point is this:

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel does not come naturally to any of us.

It must be revealed.

Given as an epiphany by God.

As the Small Catechism puts it, when we profess in the creed that we believe in the Holy Spirit, we’re professing that “by our own reason or strength we cannot believe in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Gospel does not come naturally to any of us because the Gospel comes as Jesus Christ and him crucified, which the bible says is foolishness to unbelievers and a stumbling block to believers.

And so we cannot afford to take the Gospel for granted and just get on with the hands-on “stuff” of Church: the serving and the Kingdom-building.

This is why St. Paul saves his harshest criticism for the churches in Galatia.

In Corinth, church members were having sex with their mother-in-laws, showing up drunk to the Lord’s Table, and fighting over scraps of meat sacrificed to idols.

Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians is a wilder read than Fire and Fury, yet St. Paul lays it on thick for the Corinthians. He calls them saints and dear ones and he thanks God for them.

By contrast- in today’s text, Paul skips the traditional salutations entirely, gets right to reminding them of the Gospel in verse 4, and by the time you get to verse 7 he’s calling them perverts and cursing them and calling down God’s judgement upon them.

Why is Paul so PO’d?

The Galatians were Christians- the Galatians were Christians, it doesn’t hurt to remember- who assumed that they had advanced beyond needing to hear the Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins every week.

     Everyone knows that Jesus died for their sins, right? We don’t need to hear that Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. Let’s hear about what we’re supposed to do.

They took that Gospel for granted, and they turned to another gospel, which is no gospel at all for it nullifies the Gospel.

This other gospel, said that it isn’t enough for Christians to trust that Christ’s faithfulness alone saves us.

God’s wiped our slate clean in Christ, this other gospel said, but God will one day judge us based on what we’ve done with that new slate.

This other gospel in Galatia, said that God had done his part, forgiving our sins in Christ, but now we have to do our part, faithfully following his commands to love our neighbor, care for the stranger, honor our family, and forgive those who trespass against us.

In other words, in taking the Gospel for granted, they’d reverted back to the Law.

As angry as Paul gets at the Galatians, he shouldn’t be surprised.

     Whereas the Gospel does not come naturally to us, the Law, which the bible says is inscribed upon every human heart, does come naturally to us.

The Law is like the Force. The Law does not require an epiphany. The Law is innate to us.

We’re hardwired for commands. We want someone to give us instructions and advice and marching orders (that’s why Joel Osteen is so popular). It’s natural for us to want to do and perform and work and earn our way up to God.

And so if we take the Gospel of God’s coming down to us in Christ for granted, it’s only natural that we’ll pervert the Gospel away from the proclamation of what God has done for us, once for all, into the exhortation of what we must do for God.

We can’t take the Gospel for granted, then, because it’s natural for us to turn the Gospel into the Law.

———————-

     Which brings me to my second point.

We can’t take the Gospel for granted because turning from what God has done to what we must do- it will prove our undoing.

Whoever wrote the first Christmas pageant hadn’t read their bible because the Old Testament does not consider the magi wise men. The magi were pagans and sorcerers. The magi are where we get the word magic. The magi were idolators.

Isaiah and Ezekiel both consider magi from Persia and Babylon as God’s enemies and they both prophesy God’s wrath upon them.

If you don’t know that about the magi then you can’t see what Matthew tries to show you with them.

The magi show us what St. Paul tells us about ourselves: that we who were once far off as enemies to God have been brought near to God not by our own doing but by God.

The magi follow their star charts and their reason westward to Israel, but their science and their reason only get them as far as Jerusalem where they seek out King Herod who promptly plots to kill them. In other words, relying only on their own wisdom and their own efforts leads them only to Death. Matthew wants you to see that relying on their own work and wisdom would’ve been their undoing.

The magi’s star charts do not lead them to Bethlehem.

The magi have to be told by a Word from the Lord, from the prophet Micah, to find Christ in Bethlehem.

Paul tells us what the magi show us.

This is why Paul is so amped up over the Galatians’ other gospel.

To think that the Gospel requires you to contribute anything to it means you don’t understand the Gospel and what it says about your condition.

God did his part; now we must do our part. No, the Gospel is that you’re not in a position to do anything.  The Gospel is that “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age according to the will of our God and Father.” If we’re so sinful we require a substitute condemned in our stead, then we’re too sinful to contribute anything to our salvation or even cooperate with it.

Not only, according to the Gospel given by Christ to Paul, we’re captives too. We’re not just sinners. We’re prisoners to the evil age, what Paul calls elsewhere the Power of Sin.

God does his part; and we must do ours. No, that’s like telling a drowning man to kick harder. A drowning man doesn’t need to be taught how to swim. He needs a savior.  A rescuer don’t insist that captives cooperate with their deliverance.

     By definition, rescue is one-sided, one-way love.

That’s why Paul’s tone is so uncompromising.

     There is no middle ground at all between:

“Christ has done everything for you” (the Gospel)

&

“This is what you must do” (the other gospel)

There’s no reconciliation between those two.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians in 5 words is this: Christ plus anything is nothing.

     The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to it.

The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to the everything Christ has already done.

Just as the magi require God’s Word to save them from sure and certain Death, we require God’s Word made our sinful flesh to free us from certain condemnation.

That’s the point behind Paul’s PO’d passion. Because any other gospel, it’s worse than no gospel, it’s our condemnation. That’s why Paul invokes God’s curse in today’s text.

He’s referencing the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy 27.26 where God warns those who are his people by circumcision that if they are to abide by his Law then they must obey the Law perfectly.

When it comes to the Law, it’s all or nothing. And if you don’t obey it all, then you will be accursed.

Paul’s amped up because the stakes are so high.

This other gospel, this God does his part and we must do our part gospel- it will be their undoing because the demand of the Law that they have added to the Gospel is that it be fulfilled perfectly.

They’ve taken the great exchange, Christ’s righteousness for our sin, and they’ve exchanged it for the very burden of the Law from which Christ came to set us free.

No wonder the midwinter’s so bleak in Christina Rosetti’s Christmas carol.

Because as soon as you start wondering what gift you must give to Jesus, you’re on the path to your own condemnation because, then, it’s not just one gift you must give to Jesus it’s every gift.

It’s not just a few of God’s commands. It’s all of them.

But the promise of the Gospel is that every possible gift of obedience has already been given to the Father by the Son for you in your place.

So ignore the bleak Christmas carol. You don’t need to give Jesus any gift.

Certainly not your heart- there’s nothing in your heart but cholesterol, darkness, and sin.

And even if I don’t know you, I know it to be true about you. I know it because the Bible tells me so. Why would you give him your heart?

No, if you want to give him a gift then give him your sin, give him your regret, give him your racism, give him whatever keeps you up at night because, really, it already belongs to him.

———————-

     The magi were pagans. The magi worshipped not God but the heavens, which means the Star that God employs to beckon them and their gifts to Christ was their idol.

The Star was their false god. The Star was their golden calf.

Which means-

When the magi reach Bethlehem and- with the Star above them- bow down and kneel before Christ, they’re not just paying homage; they’re pledging a new allegiance.

In other words, they’ve changed.

They’ve been changed.

And it’s all been God’s doing. The change that has come to them has come upon them- they have received it passively.

And that brings me to my third point. Paul’s point running to the end of his angry letter.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel is like that Epiphany Star.

The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ has rescued us from all our sins, is how God changes us.

The Gospel isn’t just an announcement of what God did.

The Gospel is what God does.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted and focus instead on giving to the church or serving the poor or reconciling injustice or resisting oppression or being a loving husband or a more patient parent.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel alone is how God changes you to be generous and compassionate and just and forgiving, more loving and patient.

That is, you cannot produce people who do the things that Jesus did by imploring people to do the things that Jesus did. Actually, according to St. Paul, because of the nature of sin, that will have the opposite effect.

Thus:

We’ll actually become less and less like Jesus the more we’re exhorted to become like Jesus.

People do not do the things that Jesus did by being exhorted to do the things that Jesus did.

People do the things that Jesus did only by hearing over and over what Jesus has done for them.

To put it in churchy terms:

Our sanctification

our growing in holiness

does not come by being told that we need become sanctified.

Our sanctification comes by hearing again and again and again, through word and water and wine and bread, that we are justified by Christ alone. Full stop.

We are able to live Christ-like only by hearing over and over and over that Christ’s death saves us.  Period.

The reason Paul insists that Christ plus anything else is nothing at all is because this Gospel alone can accomplish what the Law cannot: transformed and holy people.

The way God changes you into faithfulness is this Gospel, this news that Jesus Christ has fulfilled all faithfulness for you such that you are freed from the obligation to be faithful.

The way God changes you to do the things that Jesus did is this news that Jesus did it all for you so you don’t have to do any of it.

That’s what Christians talk about when we talk about freedom.

In Christ, God has set you free from the burden of perfect obedience.

In Christ, God has set you free from the demand to have faith as big as a mountain- you’re mustard seed is just fine now.

This Gospel- it’s as odd as a Star that zig zags across the horizon and then just lingers.

At best, it sounds counter-intuitive.

At worst, it sounds incomprehensible.

Where’s the brimstone? Brimstone makes sense. Brimstone is natural.

Conditions and consequences are the way we’ve arranged the world. It’s the way we all parent.

     There is nothing natural about a Gospel that says God makes people holy by promising them they’re free not to become holy.

     No wonder the Galatians traded it out for a different gospel, one that conformed to the Law already on their hearts.

Who wouldn’t be afraid to give people that sort of freedom? If we don’t set limits- lay down Law- then won’t people just do whatever they want?

Abound in sin?

Paul is adamant that we not blink from this Gospel, but there is nothing natural about this Gospel.

To believe this Gospel- it requires a giant leap of faith.

———————-

     Maybe this will help your unbelief:

Last month in Charlottesville at the African American Heritage Center, Ruby Sales, a lesser-known figure of the Civil Rights movement spoke to a capacity crowd.

Ruby Sales was a black teenage activist in the Deep South in the mid-1960’s. At the time, Sales wasn’t especially religious and she didn’t see the Civil Rights movement as a Christian one.

Then in March 1965 in Lowndes County, Alabama, Sales and some other activists were threatened outside a convenience store by a local shotgun-toting deputy.

When the deputy pulled the trigger, Jonathan Daniels, a VMI graduate and Episcopal seminary student, threw himself in front of Ruby Sales.

He died in her place, Ruby told the crowd last month in Charlottesville.

And then she said, listen to how she put it:

Jonathan walked away from the king’s table.

He could’ve had any position in society he wanted to, but forsaking all of it he came down among us in Selma where we were in bondage and he gave himself for me.

Ruby Sales is an Episcopal priest today.

Though many of her comments drew loud applause and approving nods during the event, one of her assertions drew a muted, even hostile, reaction.

When asked about the possibility of future white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Ruby Sales discouraged confrontation as the means to stop racism.

     The KKK used to chase us, and now we’re chasing them, she said.

And this is what unsettled the crowd, what struck them as unnatural, Ruby Sales said:

Justice should not be confused with revenge. Any call for justice that does not offer a pathway [to racists] for redemption is revenge not justice.

When asked how she could have such hope and compassion as to hold out for the possibility of redemption for white nationalists- how she could even insist upon their redemption, Ruby Sales said this, listen, this isn’t some other gospel:

Whatever hope I have and whatever compassion I have for ugly white nationalists’ redemption comes from hearing about my own undeserved redemption Sunday after Sunday.

The Apostle Paul says that Christ + Anything Else = Nothing At All.

But as you come to the Table to receive Christ in your mouth, Ruby Sales says to you that the inverse of Paul’s formula is also true.

Christ alone is sufficient.

Sufficient as to be everything.

 

Grateful

Jason Micheli —  November 15, 2017 — 1 Comment

Since it’s nearly Thanksgiving, here’s a piece on gratitude I wrote for the United Methodist Church’s Rethink Church website. You know you’re old and have become a company man when the denomination asks you to write for them. 

Two years ago, I woke up from emergency abdominal surgery, which removed a tumor the size of a “Harry Potter” hardback from my innards The doctor told me I had a rare, aggressive and ultimately incurable cancer. After a year of intense, butt-kicking chemo, I’m back as a workaday pastor.

And I’m so freaking grateful for it.

I resonate lately with St. Paul and his letter to the Church at Philippi. Maybe I do so because I know that after he wrote his letter, it was curtains on Paul.

Nonetheless, Paul and I have a lot in common.

Like Paul, I know what it is to be in need (of healing).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have little (little hope).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have plenty (plenty of worries and fear and regrets, plenty of pain and pain-in-the-butt insurance claims).

Like Paul, I know what it is to go hungry (for some good news), and like Paul in Philippians, I’ve got so much for which I am grateful.

To my church

I know, when life sucks it’s novel or “gutsy” to gripe about institutional religion. That feels to me like it’s either too easy a complaint to be true or too depressing to bear if it is true.

The Philippians fed Paul. He was in a Roman prison when he wrote to them. The money the Philippians sent to Paul supplied him with food because the Romans didn’t provide any for their prisoners. You either had benefactors to keep you from going hungry or you didn’t and you went hungry.

Like Paul’s church in Philippi, my parish has done so much for my family and me. They fed us and prayed for us and with us. They helped with medical bills and sat with me in the hospital. They were there to catch me when I passed out in the chemo room. And they didn’t bat an eye when I puked in their cars.

My colleague, the Rev. Dennis Perry, was with us the night I learned I had cancer. He prayed with us the morning of my surgery, and he’s been there for us all during my treatments and he’s held my hand through the new normal.

My church has done more than I could ever repay, and, honestly, that’s been a tougher pill for me to swallow than the vaginal yeast infection pills my doctor forced me to take.

Because the truth is: I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts. I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. Before, whenever someone would give me a gift, I would immediately think about what I now had to give them to even the scales between us, to balance out the relationship.

In other words, I was a guy who kept score.

One thing cancer has taught me: When you think of your relationships in that way, in terms of credits and debits, you probably think of God that way, too. And so you worry about the debt of sin you owe God and could never pay back. And you fear that, maybe, you deserve what’s happened to you. Or, you count up all the good you’ve given God and you think, maybe subconsciously, that God owes you, and you get angry that bad things have happened to you.

All my life, I’ve been crazy terrible at receiving generosity, and then I got cancer and the Church responded by giving me so much. And I worried: How can I possibly repay all this?

I physically can’t write that many thank-you notes or cook that many meals. I don’t really want anyone else barfing in my car.

I tried repaying one of my benefactors by driving him to his vasectomy appointment, but since he made me hold his hand during the procedure, I definitely don’t want to do that for anyone else.

So how could I ever give back everything I have been given? Balance the scales?

I can’t ever repay everything that’s been done for me.

And what has been done for me isn’t even the most important thing that’s been done.

Unlike Paul, in this crucible of incurable cancer, I’ve not been able to say (as Paul humble-brags in Philippians), “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.

When you have cancer, everyone — EVERY SINGLE PERSON —  tells you “to kick cancer’s ass.” But it works the other way around. Cancer kicks yours. The last months and years, I’ve felt exhausted. Spiritually exhausted.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt “thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

I didn’t lose my faith; I just didn’t feel my faith And Paul’s “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me” sounded to me like an empty cliché.

I may have a few things in common with Paul and the Philippians but not with the “I can endure all things through Christ…” part.

Unless. . .

Unless, when Paul tells the Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he’s not talking about Christ in heaven, he’s talking about Christ’s Body, the Church: “I can endure all things through you who strengthens me.”

After all, the Christ who declares at the beginning of the gospel, “I am the Light of the World,” looks at his disciples at the end of the gospel and says to them, “You are the Light of the World.”

And when we profess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” we mean that Jesus isn’t a figure in the past nor is he a promise for the future, but he’s here and now. There is no Christ “up there,” because he’s here. Now.

 I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH HIM WHO STRENGTHENS ME. [PHILIPPIANS 4:13]

So maybe. . .

Maybe when Paul says, “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he doesn’t mean, “I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…”

Maybe he doesn’t mean, “I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…” And maybe he doesn’t mean, “I can do anything by the power of my personal prayer…”

Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you, the Church. About your prayer. About your faithfulness. About your compassion and care. You. The Body of Christ, who’s strengthened me. I can do all things through you.

If Paul means it that way, then it’s no longer a naive catchphrase; it’s a statement of faith, one I can affirm. And so can my wife. And so would my sons.

We can endure all things because the Church has been with us. More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.

As Sam Wells observes, “with” just might be the most important word. In Scripture, “with” is much more important than “for.”

“In the beginning,” says Scripture, “the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God and without him not one thing came into being.”

In other words, before anything else, there was a with. The with between God and the Word, the Father and the Son. With, says the bible, is the most fundamental thing about God. So, at the very end of the Bible, when it describes our final destiny, a voice from heaven declares: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God. God himself will be with them.”

According to the Bible, “with” is the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purposes and the plot of God’s desire for us. God’s whole life, action and purpose are shaped to be with. Us.

And, I know firsthand, being with isn’t doing things for. Being with is about presence. Being with is about participation. It’s about partnership.

Which is why, I think, when Paul finally gets around to thanking the Philippians, it’s not for all the things they’ve done for him. Read it again. Paul never actually thanks them for the money they’ve sent him or the meals they’ve provided for him. No, he thanks them for sharing in his struggle, for being with him: “It was kind of you,” he says, “to share in my distress.”

It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in my wife’s worry, Church. In my boys’ fears and anxiety, Church. It was kind of you to make my cancer — our cancer — yours, too.

Thank you, for being with me.

Thank you for sharing in my distress.

Here’s a wedding sermon I wrote, using (you guessed it) 1 Corinthians 13, for a ceremony I celebrated this weekend in D.C. at the Four Seasons. Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Bill Murray crashed my preaching. I got to chat with Bill but the highlight was getting to preside over the promises made by friends.

My experience tells me that wedding sermons are really for the married folk sitting in the chairs not the nervous bride and groom, sweating it out until I get to their parts. In that same spirit, I offer to you all. Married or unmarried, I think there’s some legit good news in this old, hackneyed text for those forever feeling the burden of expectation. And, of course, nothing comes fraught and laden expectations as love.

Here we go:

Since Jess and Austin chose a Kanye song for their wedding, I thought I’d offer a pop song for the sermon: “The Pina Colada Song.” Aside from the pleasures of picturing Steve Larkin yacht-rocking circa 1979 to more liquor than he’ll ingest tonight, that’s a terrible song!

Have you ever paid attention to those lyrics?!

I never did until I took my two boys to see Guardians of the Galaxy and “The Pina Colada” song, from Star Lord’s Awesome Mix Volume I, started to play while Rocket and company escaped from their galactic prison.

“The Pina Colada Song,” it’s original title is “Escape.”

Escape. As in, from Marriage.

“If you like pina coladas and walks in the rain…” Have you listened to this supposed love song?

The man and wife of Rupert Holmes’ 1979 #1 hit sound flip about forsaking everything Jess and Austin are about to promise one another tonight.

Each of them, unsuspecting of the other, takes out a Want Ad, searching for someone who is perfect for them, a companion who likes the feel of the ocean and the taste of champagne.

I guarantee that if Kathy Larkin stumbled across Steve Larkin on Tinder the ensuing dialogue would not be FCC friendly.  And I’m pretty sure if Steve ever reacted to having been found out by calling Kathy his “lovely old lady” we’d all be at a parole hearing tonight instead of a wedding.

It’s a song about two imperfect people on the precipice.

And if you pay attention to the lyrics there’s an ironic twist on what we mean by the term ‘soul mate,’ for when the imperfect spouses meet each other through the want ads, what do they do?

They laugh.

They say: “I never knew you liked getting caught in the rain…”

And then they laugh.

Each of them laughs at the imperfect other.

     On the one hand, Rupert Holmes’ “Escape” is an awful love song, a ballad about betrayal narrowly averted.

But on the other hand, Rupert Holmes’ hit single- maybe it’s a better marriage song than love song. After all, “Escape” is a pop song about being found out and being known in weakness is the very essence of marriage.

Like Jesus on the cross, the crucible of marriage strips you of all your defenses and disguises so that all your imperfections and insecurities are laid bare for the other to see.

Marriage is a risk that requires vows precisely because marriage makes you vulnerable.

Not only is being known in our weakness the essence of marriage, it just so happens to be the experience that sinners (i.e., humans) most loath. Like Adam and Eve hiding in shame, we spend most of our lives hoping to avoid being found out as the frauds we all are. Adam and Eve covered their shame with fig leaves. We do it by filtering our lives through a social media sheen, or by saying “I’m okay.”

The passion- as in, the suffering- of intimacy isn’t that I get to know someone as they really, truly are; it’s that I am known by someone as I really am. Marriage, therefore, holds a mirror up to you and reveals to you the stranger that you call you.

And one of the things marriage constantly reflects back to us is how far we fall short of the sort of love Paul commends in 1 Corinthians 13.

——————-

     No doubt we’d all like a partner who is patient and kind and slow to anger and humble- I know my wife likes having such a partner.

But, if you think Paul’s love song is saying that you should be patient and kind, you should never be boastful or arrogant or rude, then it’s just a matter of time before what’s advice to you becomes an expectation on your spouse.

Your partner should be patient with you. Your partner should be kind to you. 

     As St. Paul says elsewhere, expectation always elicits the opposite of its intent. Thou shalt provokes I shalt not.

And so, in short order, your expectation produces resentment in your partner because love that is always patient and always kind is an impossible obligation to meet.

And it produces frustration in you.

You soon wonder why sometimes she’s quick to anger or envy.

You wonder why she’s not always patient like she should be; until, you start to see only what she is not and you stop seeing her altogether, such that you don’t even know whether she likes getting caught in the rain or the taste of champagne.

That way of listening to Paul’s love song (your love should be patient, you ought to be un-envious) is to hear it according to what Paul calls the Law.

     The Law is shorthand for an accusing standard of performance.

In the Bible, the Law is all those thou shalt and shalt nots. Be perfect as God is perfect, Jesus says. That’s the Law.

And the Law, Paul says, is inscribed in every human heart (Romans 2.15).

So even if you don’t believe in God or follow Jesus or read the Bible, the capital-L Law manifests itself in all the little-l laws in your life, all the shoulds and musts and oughts you hear constantly in the back of your mind, all those expectations and demands and obligations you feel bearing down on you from our culture.

There’s the Law of Social Media where you must crop out all your unhappiness and imperfection.

There’s the Law of Beauty where you’re measured against the standard of an ever-shrinking waist line you must attain.

There’s the Law of Parenting where your kids bento-boxed lunches should contain gluten-free, free-range, organic crustless goodness or you may as well be a slumlord in a Dickens novel.

There’s the Law of Weddings which we’re all obeying tonight.

And there’s the Law of Marriage-

The Law of Marriage which tells you that you and your partner ought to pretend your life is like the picture that comes with the frame, perfect, unabated bliss, and if you’re not happy all the time, there must be something wrong with the two of you.

Martin Luther said that the Law always accuses; that is, it points out our shortcomings.

And when we hear Paul’s love song according to the Law that’s just what it does.

When we hear 1 Corinthians 13 as advice or suggestions or, worse, commands, it just accuses us for how impatient and unkind and rude and conceited and quick to anger we know ourselves to be a whole lot of the time.

But Paul’s love song isn’t meant to be Law; it’s meant to be the opposite of the Law. It’s meant to be Gospel.

     It’s the Law that says “Be loving.”

     But it’s the Gospel that says “You are loved.”

And Paul’s song is the Gospel not the Law because the love Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t Jess’ love and Austin’s love. It’s Christ’s love.

Faith, hope and love abide, but love never ends…’ 

     For Paul, only Jesus, who was before creation and who was raised from the dead, is without beginning and end. He’s talking about Jesus.

“Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind, Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

Jesus does not insist on his own way.”

     This love song…he’s talking about Jesus.

Jesus bore all things, bearing in his body our shame.

Jesus believed all things. He did what we could not do, though forsaken he never lost faith.

Jesus endured all things, in our place, while we were yet his enemies.

The love Paul sings about in 1 Corinthians 13 is the love of Jesus, the love whose arms were stretched upon a cross so that your hearts, whether you believe in him or not, might be crucified by love.

     This love song isn’t the Law.

     It’s the Gospel because it’s not commanding you to love this way.

     It’s announcing to you that you have been loved this way.

You have been loved with a love that is patient and kind and slow to anger. This prior love of God- it makes the present-tense love between partners possible. This prior love of God, made perfect in Jesus Christ- it makes the imperfect love of husbands and wives permissible. The Gospel makes the imperfect love of marriage not only permissible but a kind of sacrament, a sign pointing to the perfect, prior love of God.

The Gospel frees you from the Law.

It frees you from all those shoulds, musts, and oughts that pop into your head. It frees you from adhering to anyone else’s standards for what your marriage must be. Because of the Gospel, you’re free to be patient and kind with one another, and you’re free to give grace when you’re neither patient nor kind. You’re free for your marriage to be nothing more and nothing less than who you are and what, together, you become. You’re free, in other words, to be ordinary because the most extraordinary thing about you has nothing to do with you.

Which means, the Gospel frees you from fear.

In marriage, you can be known in your weakness, unafraid, because the Gospel tells you that God knows the very worst about you and God loves you anyway and God has already forgiven you.

Which means, this love song, the Gospel, it frees you to forgive.

It makes it easier for you to forgive your spouse.

Because when you know the person you’re PO’d at has already been forgiven by God unconditionally, it feels more than a little stingy to keep holding your ledger in the red.

     As unlikely as it sounds, I think Rupert Holmes’ “Pina Colada” single is a wonderful song to marriage.

Because, after all, the rings Jess and Austin exchange tonight, what are they if not outward, visible signs of what no one else can see:

How flawed and imperfect we all are

And yet how God in Christ has answered the Want Ad posted in our souls

Has met us in our loneliness

Has found us out in our deepest failures

And by the happy joke we call Cross and Resurrection, laughed.

The rings-

They’re signs of the Gospel promise that Jess and Austin are imperfect people who are free to laugh with each other over those imperfections knowing that every mistake they make has already been mended by the crucified love of God.

And knowing that- it leads not to happiness but to joy. Amen.

Divine Amnesia

Jason Micheli —  September 25, 2017 — Leave a comment

 I pitched in for our lectio continua series through Exodus this weekend by preaching on Exodus 5. In advance of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (and possibly because we spent so much time this summer in Romans), I’ve been rereading a lot of Luther and it shows. In a good way, I think.

Back in the halcyon days of the 2012 campaign, poor Mitt Romney caught flack for suggesting that “illegal aliens” self-deport. In-artfully put perhaps but at least Mitt Romney never suggested enslavement as an option.

And sure, Donald Trump’s proposed border wall is cost-prohibitive and deeply unpopular but, give him some credit- everyone’s always piling on the Donald, he had the decency to insist that Mexico pay for the wall.

Donald didn’t say the dreamers should build the wall, brick by brick, and now that Steve Bannon is out of the administration it’s highly unlikely that drowning baby boys will be proposed as possible immigration policy though, admit it, if you saw that floated as an idea on Breitbart later this afternoon it wouldn’t surprise you.

I’m going to get emails about that.

My point is-

It would be easy to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture text.

It would be easy to preach a certain kind of sermon on this scripture. If you were draw a Venn Diagram between our world today and Pharaoh’s world, there’d be a lot of uncomfortable overlap in the middle. It’s hard to read the first chapters of Exodus and not hear the contemporary resonance.

     The Exodus story starts out- what provokes the plot in the first place- is an immigration crisis.

This is important: the Israelites didn’t begin as slaves in Egypt; they became enslaved by Egypt. Pharaoh’s quandary wasn’t what to do with the dreamers, the children of illegal immigrants. His quandary was what to do with the children of the dream-reader, Joseph.

Between the Book of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, famine- which in an agrarian society meant not only hunger but economic hardship- forced Joseph’s people, the Israelites, to migrate, as refugees, crossing over the border to their north in search of opportunity.

Sound familiar? Like I said, a certain sort of sermon almost writes itself.

When the Book of Exodus opens, Joseph the dream-reader has died and with him the favor he curried with Pharaoh. It’s not long that Jospeh’s in the ground before there’s grumbling about his people:

Those immigrants…they have so many kids…they’re overrunning the place.

That’s Exodus 1.9

Those illegals…they don’t assimilate…they should learn the language… they’re a drain on the system…they’re changing what made Egypt great.

That’s Exodus 1.10 (Anne Coulter Paraphrase Edition)

So what’s Pharaoh do?

He doesn’t ask them to self-deport. He enslaves them.

He doesn’t build a wall. He forces them to build pyramids and cities.

Again- the Israelites didn’t start out as slaves in Egypt; slavery was a strategy to slow their birth rate. Having recently discovered I’m Jewish, I can tell you- it’s hard to keep our libido down.

Enslavement didn’t work as population control so then Pharaoh tries infanticide, ordering the abortion of Israelite boys mid-delivery- that’s how baby Moses ends up in an ark on the Nile.

And when abortion didn’t work, Pharaoh resorted to making their work cruel and arbitrary, forcing them not only to make bricks but to gather the materials for them without adjusting their quota a single brick.

A certain kind of sermon almost writes itself.

It would be easy to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture.

I could easily unpack the context beneath this text, and I could connect it in an obvious intuitive way to contemporary issues from DACA to the wall to the refugee crisis, from sex-trafficking to the slavery stitched into your clothes to the number of black men killed by cops without a conviction.

And I could localize it for you, telling you about the dreamer in our own congregation or about the woman who worships here who works for the International Justice Mission fighting slavery and sex-trafficking.

It would be easy to preach that sort of sermon on a scripture like this, and the imperative in that sort of sermon is obvious too: God is for them.

The oppressed, the enslaved, the marginalized; the immigrant and the refugee- God is for them.

In the Catholic Church, it’s called God’s preferential option for the poor. In other words, God is on the side of the least, the lost, and the left behind. God does not forget them. God hears their cries. God does not forget them.

God is for them and- here comes the imperative- as God’s People you have a duty.

You have a duty to be for them too.

You have a duty to stand up, to speak out, to resist, to persist against systems of inequality and exploitation and oppression.

You have a duty to stand up and, like Moses to Pharaoh, say: “Thus says the Lord: Let my People go..”

It would be an easy sort of sermon to preach.

And if I did, some of you would complain that I was preaching politics. You’d feel judged for being on the wrong side of the issues.

Others of you would congratulate me for preaching your politics. You’d feel justified that you’re on the right side of the issues.

Of course, it’s not your politics or your politics but God’s politics.

It’s God’s Law, God’s commands.

It’s God’s Law that we are to treat the illegal immigrant on our land as a native born. Love them as yourself, God commands, for once you were an alien in Egypt. It’s God’s Law that we love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s God Law that we forgive the debts of the poor. And Jesus gives us his own Law. Jesus commands us to work for justice. If someone asks us for a handout, Jesus commands us to give them that and more. Jesus commands us to feed the hungry as though the hungry were hm. And what’s even worse, Jesus doesn’t just command those actions. He commands that you do them for the right reasons. God judges not the deeds of your hands but the intentions in your heart, Jesus says, right before he says “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

It would be easy to preach that sort of sermon on this scripture.

God is for them.

You have a a duty to be for them too.

Like Moses to Pharaoh, go and do likewise.

It would be easy to preach that kind of sermon and back it up with a list of God’s Laws. It wouldn’t be wrong to preach that sort of sermon- that sort of sermon gets preached in churches every Sunday.

It wouldn’t be unbiblical to preach that sort of sermon- God’s commands are clear and uncompromising.

     It would be simple to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture, but I wonder- would it be the Gospel?

     Or would it-

     Would it take the good gift, the grace, that is the Gospel

and turn it into a burden?

Would it turn the Gospel into a work of forced labor that leaves you exhausted and full resentment?

Would it leave you thinking of God as a kind of Pharaoh, with the same complaint for him on your lips as Moses: “Why have you brought this trouble in my life, Lord?”

——————-

     In “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” an article in The Hedgehog Review, Wilfred McClay, who is a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, argues that the modern world prophesied by the Friedrich Nietzsche has not obeyed the script written for it.

Nietzsche, McClay reminds us, was confident that once God was functionally dead in western civilization and western culture was liberated from the slavey of religion then the moral reflexes we’d developed under that system of oppression would disappear.

We would be free, Nietzsche predicted.

After the West’s exodus from religion generally and Christianity particularly, all would be permitted as the bonds of the old morality were broken, especially, Nietzsche predicted, the bonds of guilt.

With the West’s exodus from Christianity, guilt would disappear.

Nietzsche believed guilt was an irrational fear promulgated by oppressive systems of religion and erected in the name of a punitive taskmaster God, McClay writes.

The modern secular age, Nietzsche promised, would usher in freedom, freedom from guilt.

He was wrong.

Strangely, McClay says, guilt has persisted as a psychological force in the modern world. Guilt hasn’t disappeared as Nietzsche augured. Guilt hasn’t even lingered. It’s metastasized, McClay writes, “into an ever more powerful and pervasive element in the life of the contemporary west.”

Guilt hasn’t disappeared with the rise of secularism; it’s gotten worse.  It’s metastasized because of what McClay calls “the infinite extensibility of guilt, which is a byproduct of modernity’s proudest achievement: it’s ceaseless capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.”

In other words, McClay is saying what Uncle Ben says to Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

And in the modern world, we have more power over the physical world than we’ve ever had and, with it, we’ve discovered what Uncle Ben didn’t bother to mention to Peter Parker: “With great responsibility comes great guilt.”

McClay puts it more eloquently than Stan Lee: “Responsibility is the seedbed of guilt.”

And this sense of responsibility and accompanying guilt, McClay argues, is exacerbated by a connected, globalized, 24/7 world. In such a constantly connected world, he writes, “the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore our potential guilt, steadily expands.”

What Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t foresee is how the interconnectedness of all things- available to us at our fingertips- means there is nothing for which we cannot be, in some way, held responsible.

It’s not just that you can’t go to Costco without getting hassled by the panhandler at the light; it’s that now in this constantly connected world you can’t swipe your debit card at Safeway without the screen asking you to give money to end childhood hunger.

Says McClay:

“I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to. I don’t do it, but I know I could…

Either way, some measure of guilt would seem to be my inescapable lot, as an empowered man living in an interconnected world.

Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless…

In a world of relentlessly proliferating knowledge, there is no easy way of deciding how much guilt is enough, and how much is too much.”

McClay goes on in his article to suggest that the reason our collective fuse is so short, the reason we’re so quick to blame and scapegoat and demonize and point the finger and virtue-signal, the reason we’re so easily outraged and offended, the reason we’re so eager to hide in like-minded tribes and jump down the other side’s throats is because we’re sick.

We’re burdened down with guilt. We’re pervasively desperate “to find innocence through absolution.”

But…he says

As a culture, we’ve lost the means to discharge our moral burden. We’ve lost the means to find forgiveness.

If McClay is correct- and I think it only takes a few seconds on social media to confirm that he is- then the sermon that would be easy to preach today is not the sermon you need to hear.

———————

     The other sort of sermon, the go and do sort of sermon-

It wouldn’t be wrong; it just wouldn’t be the Gospel. It would be the opposite of the Gospel. It would be the Law not the Gospel, what the Book of Romans calls the way of death because it ends in guilt and frustration and, ultimately, despair because you can never do enough.

It’s true-

God’s Law commands us to love our neighbor as ourself, no matter their skin color or immigration status. God’s Law does command us to love the refugee among us. God’s Law does command us to love our enemies and pray for them, to treat the poor and the desperate as through they were Christ, and to welcome the stranger.

And some of you live up to those commands better than others, but do you do so all the time?

For the right reasons? Because Jesus says if you’ve done his commands without your heart in it, it’s no different than not having done it all.

St. Paul says the purpose of the Law, the purpose of all those expectations and exhortations in scripture, is to shut your mouth up (Romans 3.19), to convict you that you are not righteous and on your own you cannot stand justified before God.

Martin Luther paraphrased that part of St. Paul as lex semper accusat:

The Law always accuses.

     That is, the purpose of the Law is to convince you that you’re a sinner in need of a savior. The oughts of the Law (you ought to love your neighbor as yourself) are meant to reveal are all your cannots, that no matter how ‘good’ you are you fall short fall short.

The reason Jesus adds intention to action (God judges not the deeds of your hands but the intent in your heart), the reason Jesus ratchets up the degree of difficulty all the way to perfection (Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect) is so that we’ll have no other resort but to throw ourselves on the mercy of him who was perfect in our place.

“Christ,” Paul says, “is the end of the Law.”

The Law’s obligations have been fulfilled by him. By his faithfulness all the way unto a cross. And there on the cross, your failures to follow the Law have been paid by him.

———————

     The Gospel is not a list of demands that you have a duty to fulfill or fear failure.

God is not a Pharaoh.

The Gospel is the good news that on the cross God has met you in your failure and forgiven you.

You don’t need Christ to tell you that you should love your neighbor as yourself. Every religion tells you that you should love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s not news. That’s moralism.

     What is news; what is unique to Christianity alone; what is the Gospel-  is the message that in Jesus Christ God became your neighbor and loved you as himself even though you loved him not. 

    The Gospel is not a list of demands that you have a duty to fulfill or fear failure. The Gospel is the news that God has met you in your failure.

God has met you in your failure to love your neighbor as yourself.

God has met you in your failure to give generously to the poor.

God has met you in your failure to be a good mother.

God has met you in your failure to be a loving husband, to be a patient sister or a compassionate son, or an understanding daughter.

God has met you in your failure and God has forgiven you.

This never stops being true for you.

No matter how many times you drive past the panhandler on the Costco corner. No matter how many times you press ‘No’ on the Safeway screen. No matter how many times you click through the latest outrage you know you should care more about.

God has met you in your failures and by his own blood said “I forgive you” so that your sins become his and his righteousness becomes yours, permanently and forever.

Your sins and failures of faith- they’re not just forgiven, they’re erased. “Your slate is more than clean. It’s brand new, perpetually so” (Law and Gospel).

It’s true that God hears the cries of the oppressed and the exploited. It’s true that God does not forget them. But the Gospel is that when it comes to your sins, God does forget.

The absolution that is in Christ’s blood is a kind of divine amnesia, Paul Zahl says, a forgiving and forgetting of all your failures to be faithful.

This is true for Moses, who killed a man and buried him in the sand. And it’s true for Pharaoh, whose heart was already hard on his own. And it’s true for Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. And it’s true even for you.

     It’s God’s grace.

     It’s the gift we call the Gospel.

     And it’s not a cheap gift. It’s not even an expensive gift. It’s free (Robert Capon).

     It’s free.

———————-

     Professor McClay concludes his essay with this assertion:

“For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for.

And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight that seeks opportunities for release but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation.

Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution. What is to be done?

One conclusion seems unavoidable. Those who have viewed the exodus of religion as the modern age’s signal act of human liberation need to reconsider their dogmatic assurance on that point. Indeed, the persistent problem of guilt may open up an entirely different basis for reconsidering the enduring claim of Christianity.”

That’s a history professor, not a preacher.

Translation:

The certain sort of sermon that would be easy to preach on a scripture like today’s text- it’s not the message the modern world needs to hear.  The world doesn’t need more moralism. The world needs the Gospel.

Standing up, speaking out, resisting systems of injustice and oppression- those are needful, noble acts but they are actions that don’t need the Church.

The Church is not the only people standing up and speaking out for social justice.

By contrast, the Church is the only People on earth commissioned by God with the authority to announce, to victims and victimizers alike, “Your sins are forgiven.” That’s our unique vocation.

Just as the Old Testament declares that God called Moses to be his ambassador to Pharaoh to announce “Let my people go,” the New Testament declares that God has called you and I, by our baptisms into his Holy Church, to be ambassadors of the Gospel.

And the Gospel is not the Law.

The Gospel is not a list of demands you have a duty to follow but the news, the good news, that in Jesus Christ you have been delivered from what you deserve.

Your slate is isn’t just clean; it’s new every morning.

The God who does not forget his People does forgive and forget their sins.

The Gospel is not “Go and do…”; the Gospel is “It has been done.”

This news-

This news of what has been done, this news of the free gift of God- this alone makes the “Go and do” possible.

You can go and do only when you know it has been done (because no one deserves for you to go and do to them out of guilt).

This news alone liberates us to stand up for justice and work against oppression, for, as the closing hymn says, only the Gospel has the power to transform duty into choice and slaves into children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I cannot exaggerate the influence Dr. Gaventa’s work has had on my preaching as well as my faith. A former teacher of mine at Princeton, Beverly Gaventa opened up Paul’s letters to me, which in turn opened up the Gospels to me and also gave me the lens through which I could read the Old Testament.

Beverly Gaventa is the author the recent book When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel According to Paul. It’s a book I believe every preacher must read and every Christian can and should read.
With a Ph.d. from Duke and formerly of Princeton, Beverly is a Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Baylor University. I continue to believe that Christians need Paul to comprehend the Gospels and to that end Christians require Beverly to comprehend Paul.

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The theology nerds who read this blog will already know that the Church this week lost who Time Magazine’s America’s Best Theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, said was the best theologian in America: Robert Jenson.

I’m a reader of Jenson but hardly an expert. I got to know him a bit, delivering his mail when I worked in the Princeton mail room and he was at the Center for Theological Inquiry. I do believe his (Lutheran) emphasis upon the unconditional, promissory nature of the news of justification is especially needful in Trump’s America where we are constantly tempted into Law and Self-Rigtheousness.

Here’s a snippet from Jenson followed by our podcast interview with him just before he died:

“The gospel is a wholly unconditional promise of the human fulfillment of its hearers, made by the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The gospel, rightly spoken, involves no ifs, ands, buts, or maybes of any sort. It does not say, “If you do your best to live a good life, God will fulfill that life,” or, “If you fight on the right side of the great issues of your time …,” or, “If you repent …,” or, “If you believe …” It does not even say, “If you want to do good/repent/believe …,” or, “If you are sorry for not wanting to do good/repent/believe …”

The gospel says, “Because the Crucified lives as Lord, your destiny is good.”

The Reformation’s first and last assertion was that any talk of Jesus and God and human life that does not transcend all conditions is a perversion of the gospel and will be at best irrelevant in the lives of hearers and at worst destructive.”

– Lutheranism

Here’s the podcast with Jens:

Having received a steady diet of Gospel from our summer sermon series through Romans, I stumbled upon Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners and Saints by David Zahl et al. I encourage you to check it out. It’s slim and digestible.

The book concludes with a spot-on, convicting (for me), and helpful guide to distinguish whether what you’re hearing in church is Law or Gospel.

The distinction between law and gospel is the highest art in Christendom
–Martin Luther

Zahl writes:

“A strong belief of Luther, and those who follow in his footsteps, is that people should not be enticed to church by the Gospel and then, after believing, turn toward self-improvement. The Law always kills, and the Spirit always gives life. This death and resurrection of the believer is not a one-time event, but must be repeated continually: It is the shape of the Christian life. On Sundays, therefore, some form of the Law is ideally preached to kill, and the Gospel to vivify—“the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). But in many situations, the Law is mistakenly preached to give life, on the assumption that the believer, unlike the new Christian, has the moral strength to follow the guidelines.

This leads to burnout, often producing agnostics or converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. Words like ‘accountability’ or ‘intentionality,’ for example, are sure signs that the letter, rather than the Spirit, is being looked to for life. To help distinguish this form of misguided Law from the Gospel, here’s a handy guide:

1. Listen for a distortion of the commandment: Anytime a hard commandment is softened, such as “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48) to “just do your best,” we’re looking to the Law, not the Gospel, for life.

2. Discern the balance of agency: If you’re in charge of making it happen, it’s misguided Law. If God’s in charge, it’s Gospel. If it’s a mixture, it’s Law.

3. Look for honesty: If you or others either seem ‘A-okay’ or ‘struggling, but…,’ then likely it’s because the Old Adam is alive and well (there will also be a horrible scandal in the next three months). If people are open and honest about their problems, such freedom shows the Gospel is at work.

4. Watch for exhaustion: If the yoke is hard and the burden heavy week after week, then the letter’s probably overpowering the Spirit.

5. Examine the language: If you hear ‘If… then,’ ‘Wouldn’t it be nice…,’ ‘We should all…,’ or anything else that smacks of the imperative voice, it’s implicit works-salvation. If you hear the indicative voice—‘God is…,’ ‘We are…,’ or ‘God will…’—then it’s probably Gospel.

6. Watch for the view of human nature, or anthropology: If human willpower, strength, or effort are being lauded or appealed to, it’s Law. High anthropology means low Christology, and vice-versa.

7. Finally, keep an eye out for the ‘Galatians effect,’ summarized by St. Paul:

Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal 3:2-5)

If how you’re approaching or being told to approach Christianity now feels different from “believing what you heard,” we’re in Galatians territory. Christianity is Good News, and it never ceases to be Good News.”

David King is a rising sophomore at Haverford College and served as my intern this summer. He’s the sixth intern I’ve had in my time at Aldersgate, presently four of the previous five are engaged in ministry.

Here’s his final sermon for the summer on Romans 15.14-21

 

Friends, I cannot stand here today and tell you that I am happy to be preaching.  I cannot stand here today and tell you I am content.  I am filled with rage, with anger, with sadness, with shame, with helplessness.  I feel shattered and broken, torn, just as our country is torn.  But of all the things I am filled with, of all the righteous anger, I lack hope.  I cannot stand here today and honestly tell you that I am filled with hope.

I would be remiss to talk about something other than the events that occurred last weekend just three hours south of here, in the valley town of Charlottesville, where the home of local slave-owner and founding father Thomas Jefferson overlooks the campus of one of the bastions of higher education in America.

On Saturday morning, just last week, a group of clergy from around the Charlottesville area and the broader Virginia community, led by the Rev. Dr. Cornel West, marched in silence through the streets of that American town, leading towards a confrontation with the largest nationalist gathering, to put it lightly, in two decades.

They marched, in silence, towards a herd of gun-carrying, Kevlar-vest wearing, pepper-spray boasting group of people who are perhaps more than ever responsible for bringing to the forefront the American plague.

They marched, in silence, towards a group of people possessed by a disease, a plague.  Perhaps, one might even call it a demon.  Or, if you are really bold enough, if you are Pauline enough, you might call it The Demon, The Devil, Satan.

When those clergy met with protestors, it was not vitriol that came forth from their mouths.  They did not spew hatred and lies.  They did not confront the Enemy, capital E, with the sword.  No, rather, what sprung from their lips was a song, one that I think you would all be familiar with.

[Sing “this Little light of mine”]

Indeed, what rang across the streets of Charlottesville in rejection of the Demon they confronted was that song, a song of resistance, a song of children, a song of innocence and beauty.  It was a song I learned in Sunday School, one that I’m sure you and you children did too.  It was a song sung for decades in resistance of the hatred our society has propagated.  And that morning in Charlottesville, it was song sung univocally, with no quivering in their voices.

In a word, it was a song sung boldly.

Or perhaps, boldly is the wrong word.  Perhaps we should rather say that it was kauchesin, the Greek word found in verse 17 of today’s scripture.  Translated in our text as boasting, it should rather be translated more accurately as “glorying.”

“Glorying.”

That’s what that song was.  And the fact of the matter is, that’s what Paul’s writing has been about.  His writing to the Romans, to the Church in Rome that he has never seen or visited, is glorying.  It is that because, just like every other word in Romans, his writing is centered on the work of God in Christ, not his own.  Paul’s work is always already not his own, but it is work through the strength of Christ and to the glory of his name.

“Glorying.”

[Sing second verse of “This Little Light of Mine”]

If you pay close attention to what Paul says in today’s scripture, you cannot help but notice that in every sentence, virtually every verse, there is some note that what he does, he can only do through a given grace, The Given Grace, of Christ.

Look at verse 15: “because of the grace given me by God.”  And verse 16: “in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (note it is not Paul’s Gospel, but God’s).  And verse 17: “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason.”  And verse 18, “What Christ has accomplished through me.”  And pay special attention here, note, the subject of that sentence is not Paul! The actor, the person that the verb is referencing, it’s Jesus!).  And verse 19, “by the power of the Spirit of God.”

Paul cannot escape the fact that he can do nothing to spread the Gospel except through Christ.  In fact, it’s a reality he does not want to escape, and neither did the clergy in Charlottesville last weekend.  For while they were attacked, the attention was not on them.  While they were hurt, the song continued ringing.

And while one might think that it was the strength of the individuals there, the song coming from their mouths, that sustained them, I’d wager that every clergy member there would vehemently disagree with you.  I would even venture to say that they would use the very same language Paul uses in verse 18: “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me.”

In fact, they might use an even stronger translation and say this: “For I will not DARE to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me,” for those clergy know much better than you or I that we are nothing, we have nothing, we can only be nothing, if we do not have Christ.  If Christ did not die for the unworthy, for the most ungodly, then we have nothing.

But this is not bad.  We cannot be anything without Christ because Christ was, is, our everything.  I do not mean that in a cliché or meaningless way; that statement is the very thing we confess when we are baptized into the Church.  Jesus is our everything, and it is only through him that we can speak, live, breathe, and have our being.

Those clergy knew that.  And so did Paul, walking the roads of an all-too familiar empire 2000 years ago.

[Sing third verse of “This Little Light of Mine”]

“It is my ambition,” says Paul, “to proclaim the Good News.”  The Greek word, “philotimoumenon,” which here translates as ambition, more directly means “to prosecute as a point of honor.”  To proclaim, and to take honor and joy in that proclamation, is Paul’s missionary journey – and it’s ours too.

It is our missionary, apostolic vocation to walk the roads of the American Empire, and proclaim a different Lord, the only Lord.  But the effectiveness of that message, as Paul knew all too well, has little to do with us and all to do with, in the words of Karl Barth, “the strange awareness of the presence of a wholly different and incommensurable factor – Jesus Christ.”

We are remiss to forget the strangeness to which we are called, as Christians.  The strangeness of singing in the face of violence, of laying down the sword in the face of the barrel of a gun, of echoing the harmony of the heavenly chorus in the face of the Demon himself.

And let us not forget the power of this message.  Let us not forget the power of this vocation.  Let us not forget Paul.  Before he started walking, neither Asia Minor nor Greece had heard of this radical Jew from Nazareth called Jesus.  And when Paul set down his pen and joined his Lord in heaven, little communities had appeared all over Caesar’s empire, proclaiming and confessing the Risen Christ, the suffering and strange servant the prophet Isaiah foretold.

Listen closely to the passage Paul quotes here:

“Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.”

Something’s not right here.  The parallels do not add up.  They do not make sense.  Those who haven’t been told will see? Those who haven’t heard will understand?  Listening and seeing don’t match; hearing and understanding don’t match.  It doesn’t make sense.

It does not make sense, that is, if we think that our first mission as Christians is to tell and force understanding.  It doesn’t make sense if we think that our first mission as Christians is to do something at all.

Let’s look at this again: “Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.”  You will notice that there is no 1st person tense in this sentence.  There is no “I.”  It is all 3rd person.  So when we interpret and read Paul, we have to also understand that our first mission, as Christians, is to let God do the work.  We are not called to tell the Gospel, but to show it; we are not called to teach the Gospel, but to be a living witness to it.  And that, my friends, is where the work of God becomes most clear.  When we remove the first person, when we remove ourselves and our inevitably large egos, that is where the Gospel shines through, and where the work of God is apparent.

You know, that’s why the grammar of the song the clergy sang is so important.  When their voices rang through the streets of Charlottesville, when they rose a song in the face of Nazis, the most venerable “I,” the individual, was shut out and shut away.  It was there that the work of God became clear in the midst of the Clergy.  For they knew, better than you and me combined, that they had neither lit the light nor provided the candle.  They knew that all they needed to do was “let it shine.”

But do not mistake this for a passive stance, an allowance of the virulent violence that pervades and manifests our world.  To speak of God, to sing of God is a bold stance to take, and one that glorifies the empty tomb.

Friends, I cannot stand here today and tell you that I am happy to be preaching.  I cannot stand here today and tell you I am content.  I am filled with rage, with anger, with sadness, with shame, with helplessness.  I feel shattered and broken, torn, just as this country is torn.  But of all the things I am filled with, of all the righteous anger, I cannot stand here today and honestly tell you that I am filled with hope.

No, hope isn’t the right word.  In the midst of the pain, anger, suffering, despair, brokenness, shame, disgust, and guilt, in the midst of it all, I stand here boldly.  Or as Paul would say it, I stand here glorying.

I offer to you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

 

“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Cue the candidate’s response: “I do.”

Recently I presented on the Lordship of Christ at a retreat for ordinands. A friend presented on the sacraments. When she got to discussing the rite for baptism she mentioned how this second vow from the United Methodist liturgy about our freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression meant a lot more to her of late.

In the wake of The Donald’s election, she didn’t need to add.

Afterwards, as headed home, I half-joked to her that “I don’t think the Apostle Paul was quite as sunny as our Book of Worship about our power and potential to resist.”

“I’d like to talk more about that sometime,” she replied.

I shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t much matter though since we’ve excised Satan from the baptismal liturgy anyways. That we might be wrong about our power isn’t a problem if the Power of Satan is no longer the problem.”

I was only half-joking.

J. Louis Martyn writes that for the Apostle Paul:

“The Church is God’s apocalyptic beachhead and Paul sees in baptism the juncture by which the person both participates in the death of Christ (Romans 6.4) and is equipped with the armor for apocalyptic battle (Romans 13.22).”

Baptism, for Paul, is both a being put to death and an ongoing empowerment by God the Holy Spirit. Through baptism and the baptized, God contends against Another: Satan, whom Paul variously makes synonymous with the Power of Sin, the Power of Death, and the Principalities and Powers.

Not only does God put us to death in Christ through baptism, transferring us from the Lordship of Death to the Lordship of Grace, prior to baptism we are slaves to Death and after, Paul says, slaves to righteousness. Or, as Paul puts elsewhere, apart from the righteousness of God in Christ, Sin is a Power who we are all under and from whom not one of us has the freedom or the power to liberate ourselves.

Christians then have peculiar definitions for freedom and power, and we have a more specific set of names for evil and injustice. Prior to our baptism in to Christ, we have no freedom or power at all, as we are captives to the anti-God Powers, and proceeding baptism freedom is slavery to the righteousness of God. This is why Paul doesn’t use the language of repentance, as the baptismal liturgy does. It makes no sense to tell prisoners to repent their way out of captivity; they can only be delivered.

While God has defeated the Power of Satan through Cross and Resurrection, once for all, this defeat, though real, is not yet realized. God is yet contending against a Power whose defeat is sure if not surrendered. Thus Paul reveals the theme of his letter to the Romans only at the very end: “The God of Peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.”

In the sacraments, says theologian Joseph Mangina in Baptism at the Turning of the Ages, “the apocalypse (invasion/irruption/revealing) of God in Jesus Christ becomes an apocalypse now.”

Baptism and Eucharist, in other words, are means (for Paul, in Romans, the Gospel kerygma itself is the primary means) by which God invades territory held by an Enemy, a world that, as the Book of Common Prayer’s baptismal service once put it: “…is the realm of Sin and Satan.”

Note how different that is than today’s baptismal question:

“…evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Here, evil, injustice, and oppression present themselves in varying forms in our world. There is no acknowledged agency behind them.

In the older liturgies (and Romans 8) evil, injustice, and oppression are the forms by which the Power Sin/Satan/Death manifests in our world.

What’s critical about the apocalyptic character of Word and Sacrament in Paul is the active agency of God. When it comes to resisting evil and injustice, God never stops being the subject of the verbs. Even our growth into Christ likeness Paul casts in the passive voice: “…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed…”

It is not that God begins this process of transformation in Christ and then hands it off to us to resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Indeed apart from the activity of God in and upon us, we cannot be trusted to identify evil or rightly to resist injustice for the insidious Power of Sin is such that in can corrupt even our best religious impulses. 

God is the acting agent of our transformation into conformity to Christ from beginning to end, acting against the agency of the Enemy.

Likely, Paul would put our baptismal question in the passive as well:

Do you trust that you will be used by God to resist…?

In much of our liturgical practice today, we’ve demythologized the rites such that Satan becomes vague, as in, “spiritual forces of wickedness” or, worse, vaguely anthropocentric, as in, “injustice and oppression.”

Even worse is the example in the present Book of Common Prayer: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

As Joseph Mangina notes: “Striving for justice and peace, respecting human dignity- these high, humanitarian aspirations are as generic as they are idealistic. It is not clear what they are doing in a Christian baptismal liturgy…for only by the agency of Christ can we grasp the true contours of ‘justice’ and ‘peace.’ “

In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer the baptism ritual asks the candidates questions such as “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching…will you persevere in resisting evil…will you seek and serve Christ…?”

In each case, the requisite reply is “I will, with God’s help.” 

In the previous iterations of the Book of Common Prayer, similar questions required a much stronger affirmation of God’s agency (and betrayed much less interest in our own potential): “God being my helper.” 

The prescribed answer in the United Methodist Book of Worship: “I do.” 

Note the (only) subject of the verb.

God’s agency is assumed to the point of obscurity.

Compare this to the Tridentine rite- if you’ve seen Godfather I you’ve seen it.

Salt is placed on the infant’s tongue to protect it from corruption by the Power of Sin. The priest performs an exorcism, blowing 3 times, on the child. The confession of faith is followed by a robust renunciation: Do you renounce Satan? And all his works? And all his pomps?

Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer kept the exorcism as part of the baptismal rite but it disappeared as the biblical worldview waned and the modern liberal world waxed. In fact, the shift from God as acting subject responsible for faith to acted upon object of our faith, from theology to anthropology, in modern Enlightenment theology is mirrored in worship.

Ludwig Feuerbach famously (and correctly) diagnosed most Christian speech about God as really being speech about ourselves. We could not turn to some of our liturgical texts to disprove him.

Compared to the Tridentine rite and the Book of Common Prayer of John Wesley’s day, the emphasis, intentional or not, in our contemporary liturgies is on human promise-making at the expense of God’s singular action in Jesus Christ. This sole agency of God is itself the foundational principle of baptism’s un-repeatablity. In the act of baptism and in the life of the baptized thereafter, God is the acting agent, overturning the world.

“That a Christian has been baptized should be nothing less than a cause for astonishment,” Joseph Mangina says, for it is the work of the Living God.

Such astonishment at the agency of God is either muted or altogether missing in any question where we are the answer: I do. 

     I continued our summer sermon series through Romans with 12.1-2, 9-16.

Pay attention to the passive voice:

“Our society is broken, pretty much, but there will be a time when these times will be made right.”

“…these times will be made right” said the principal of Goose Creek High School in Charleston, South Carolina.

“…these times will be made right” he said just days after Dylann Roof stormed into Mother Emmanuel AME Church and shot 9 parishioners gathered for bible study. One of the nine victims was the track coach at Goose Creek High School.

“…these times will be made right.”

Which is to say, despite the brokenness we can see everywhere an unseen agency is at work, making right. Or as Paul would say, rectifying.

Only four days after Dylann Roof stormed into Emmanuel AME and left six black women and 3 black men in a bloody pile in the church basement, the leaders of the congregation concluded the only way to press forward was for them to go back to exactly what they’d done before, to do the Sunday after that shooting what they had done the Sunday previous.

Worship the Lord Jesus Christ.

Proclaim the Gospel. The Gospel which Paul says is the rectifying power of God unleashed in our world (1.16-17).

Preaching that Sunday at Mother Emmanuel AME Church, Reverend Norvel Goff, an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, proclaimed: “through our proclamation of the Gospel on this day a message will be sent to Satan.”

Note the passive voice again: “through our proclamation…a message will be sent.”

The worshippers at Emmanuel Church were not the ones sending the message.

Later in his sermon, his voice roaring, Reverend Goff added: “Something wants to divide us- black and brown and white- but no weapon formed against us shall prosper.”

Notice- he didn’t say Dylann Roof wanted to divide us. He didn’t say racists and bigots want to divide us. Something wants to divide us– there’s another agency at work in the world.

Speaking of that other agency, that same Sunday, outside the church, the Reverend Brandon Bowers, who is white and the pastor of Awaken Church, said: “What the Enemy intended for evil, God is using- God is using us- for good.”

He said Enemy with a capital E- even the NY Times caught it.

And he did not say we’re using this for good.

Pay attention to the passive: “God is using us for good.”

We’re being used by God for good.

The service at Mother Emmanuel AME Church began with a hymn: “You are the Source of my strength, you are the strength of my life.”

Meanwhile, while they sang at Emmanuel AME, the family of 21 year old Dylann Roof worshipped at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

The pastor of St. Paul’s read the names of the victims and the congregation prayed for them and their families. The victimizer’s family prayed for the victims and their families.

About the victimizer’s family, the pastor of St. Paul told his congregation later: “They are shattered but through their faith they are being made strong.”

“…they are being made strong.”

——————————

     “…these times will be made by right.”

——————————

     Pay attention to the passive:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice…Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection…Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit…Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer…

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…do not be haughty…do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…overcome evil with good.”

“I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed… but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

If you don’t understand what the therefore is there for, not only do you miss Paul’s point here you mishear this passage as bad news instead of good, as burdensome rather than freeing.

Because, let’s face it-

Genuine, 100% of the time, love

Unflagging zeal

Patience in suffering

Perseverance in prayer

Feeding your enemies

I’ve been here coming on my 13th year and I don’t know any of you who score better than a D on this long list of attributes of what transformation looks like. I’d bet the house that behind closed doors Pope Francis doesn’t do better than a B-.

I mean, half of you can’t even get along on Facebook, let alone blessing those who curse you. This is DC- a lot of you make your livelihood claiming to be wiser than you really are.

“Do not be haughty?” So long as Donald Trump is in office that’s an impossible command for some of you.

Assuming it’s a command, that is.

If you don’t know what the therefore is there for, you’ll mishear this passage.

You won’t hear it as Gospel. You’ll hear it- if you’re honest enough to admit it- as a guilt trip. You’ll hear it as a To Do list of musts and shoulds, as a prescription of what we have to do.

Without the therefore there, you’ll hear Paul saying: A real transformed Christian looks like this…a genuine Christian must do this…must love enemies, must bless those who curse them, must be patient in suffering and ardent about their faith.

     No.

That’s what the therefore is there for.

The therefore signals that what comes next depends upon what came before.

The therefore signals that what proceeds is possible only because of what preceded.

The therefore signals that what follows is a part of everything prior.

Or, in other words, chapter 12 comes after chapter 11.

Chapter 12 comes after chapter 8 and chapter 6 and chapter 5 and 3 and 1.

The therefore is there for you to remember that what comes next here in chapter 12 continues and concludes what has come before.

Just before this, the verse that sets up this therefore- it’s a doxology. It’s a song of praise, thanking God for the work of God to save all of God’s creation (11.33-36).

And before that, Paul has said that even the disbelief of some is a part of God’s work to show mercy to all. Before that, Paul has said that the all-ness of God’s saving work includes not just creatures like you and me but all of creation.

All of creation because all of creation, Paul has said before, is in captivity to the Power of Sin with a capital S. A Power that, just before, Paul made synonymous with the Power of Death with a capital D.

A Power, Paul said before that, whose power we are all under such that not one of us can free ourselves. We have no power against this Power. We’re prisoners, Paul has said before.

Which gets back to what Paul said just before that, at the very beginning of his argument (and remember, it is all one, long argument). In his thesis statement at the beginning, before the therefore and everything else, Paul announced that his letter is about what God is doing:

“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for in it the rectifying power of God is invading [the world].”

You can only invade territory held by an Enemy.

The Gospel is the Power of God to take God’s world back from the Enemy who binds it. The Gospel, Paul has said, is the means by which God takes God’s world back from the One who holds it captive.

Pay attention to the present tense.

The Gospel isn’t about what God did.

The Gospel is what God does.

Everything that has come before the therefore has been about God’s doing.

     You didn’t invite Jesus into your heart. God has poured God’s love into your heart through the Holy Spirit, Paul has said.

You didn’t journey to God. God has transferred you from the dominion of Sin into the dominion of grace.

You didn’t decide to become a new you. God killed off your old self- you have died with Christ- and now you are in Christ.

You didn’t sign up to serve God. God has set you free from slavery to Sin and Death and made you instead a slave of righteousness.

It’s all been about what God does.

——————————

     So, why should we suppose that when he gets to this point in his letter Paul is suddenly talking about us, about what we do?

What the therefore is there for is to remind you that what comes next describes what God is doing not what we do.

It’s proclamation not exhortation.

It’s indicative not imperative.

The therefore is there so you don’t mistake this as a prescription of what we must do: We must be genuine in love. We must be patient in suffering. We must be zealous for God all the time. We must bless those who curse us and love our enemies. 

If there’s a must or a should or a have-to in your sentences, you’re not speaking Gospel.

The therefore is there for you to know this is not a prescription of who you must be or what you must do. It’s a description of who Jesus Christ is and what God is doing.

Pay attention to the passive: “I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed…but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

We’re not the ones doing the transforming.

The therefore is there for you to see that this transformation isn’t up to us. You’re not left to your lonesome to live up to impossible ideals. The point of this passage isn’t that you have to become a new you; it’s that you are being made new.

By God.

By the mercies of God, Paul says.

That’s not a throwaway religious cliche.

The word Paul uses there, dia, refers to the instrumentality of God, i.e, what Paul is saying: Only by the merciful activity of God upon you can you be conformed not to this world but transformed into conformity to Jesus Christ.

That’s different.

That’s different than Paul simply telling you to emulate and imitate Jesus. Jesus didn’t even have an easy time being Jesus; how could you possibly emulate and imitate him? No, Paul’s not exhorting you to imitate Jesus.

Paul’s already told you before, back in chapter 6, by faith and by baptism- by God- you NOW are in Jesus Christ. He doesn’t mean that as a metaphor.

You are in Jesus Christ.

And now- therefore- Paul is telling you, God is shaping you into Christ likeness.

Patience in suffering. Blessing those who curse you. Perseverance in prayer. Genuine love. This isn’t a To Do list or a Christian Code of Conduct. They’re not exhortations or expectations. They’re attributes of Christ.

He’s describing the mind of Christ.

The mind according to which God is at work to conform us.

“I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed…but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

Pay attention to the language.

That word renewing- it’s anakainosis. It means literally “completely taken over.”

God is at work to transform you. To conform you to Christ.

To completely take over your mind with the mind of Christ.

What Paul says here is what Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made Jesus to be Sin who knew no sin (why?) so that (therefore) we might become the righteousness of God.”

What Paul says here is what Paul says to the Philippians: “…the God who began a good work in you will in the fullness of time bring it to completion.” Not, you now have to bring it to completion. God will bring it to completion.

What Paul says here is what Paul said at the very beginning of this letter:

The Gospel, what we announce in Word and Sacrament- it is the power of Almighty God to invade, to completely take over, until you are rectified, put right, according to the mind of Christ in whose image you are made.

And through you…the world.

“…these times will be made right.”

——————————

     Pay attention to the passive.

Last May, Dennis and I attended Hedy’s graduation from Wesley Theological Seminary, held at the National Cathedral.

The pastor of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, killed by Dylann Roof, would’ve been in the graduating class.

They awarded his degree posthumously, and when it came time for Reverend Pinckney’s name to be read, they invited his wife Jennifer forward to receive his diploma and to speak.

She acknowledged that the ceremony was a bittersweet moment for her. She painted a picture of her husband asleep in his man cave, his coursework still on his lap. And then she confessed that she’d had no idea what to say to those gathered there in the cathedral.

She’d had no idea what to say.

‘But then,’ she said, ‘I was hit with the words to share.’

I was hit.

By God. By the Holy Spirit.

And what followed was plain and unremarkable, but it was powerful- more so than the sermon that had come before, a sermon that had been all exhortation, an exhausting litany of musts and shoulds.

But what Jennifer Pinkney from Emmanuel AME Church said was powerful not because of the pathos of the moment nor for the profundity of her words.

It was powerful because she had reminded us- testified to us- that God is real.

God is living.

Acting.

At work: “…I was hit with what to say…”

——————————-

     Look-

You can’t become unflagging in your zeal by exerting more zeal.

You don’t persevere in prayer by practicing prayer.

Your love doesn’t become genuine through effort.

You don’t achieve patience in suffering by enduring it.

Blessing those who curse you doesn’t come about by you biting your tongue.

You can forgive 70 x 7 times but if it takes in your heart even 1 of those times it’s not your own doing.

You don’t walk in newness of life because you set out to do so.

You don’t become lovers of enemies by trying- neither will they cease to be your enemy because you’ve attempted to love them.

     None of it is possible for you to do.

     But all of it is possible for the Living God to do in you.

The therefore is there for you to remember that the Christian life is pointless if the God we serve is not a Living God.

The therefore is there for you to remember that Christianity is bigger than simply doing the things Jesus did because you can’t do any of the things Jesus did if God did not raise him from the dead to conform and transform you.

And sure that takes different kind of patience, sure that sounds messier and slower and more frustrating than if Paul just handed us a simple To Do List of Musts and Shoulds.

But our understanding of the Gospel, our understanding of what it means to be a Christian, should at least require that Jesus Christ is alive and at work in the world.

—————————-

     The Sunday after Dylann Roof shot nine at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston members of Citadel Baptist Church, a white Southern Baptist Church with a long and complicated relationship with racism, walked the mere steps from their church to Emmanuel Church and they placed purple daises around the front of Emmanuel.

The Reverend David Walker, pastor of Citadel Baptist, explained the gesture thus.

Pay attention to the passive: “Something compelled us to do this…”

Christ is Risen indeed.

   

 

 

Razing Hell

Jason Micheli —  July 31, 2017 — 3 Comments

        Here’s my sermon from this weekend, continuing our summer series through Romans. The text was Romans 11.25-32.  

Back in the day, before I was the wise and seasoned pastor you see before you, I worked for a couple of years as a chaplain at the maximum security prison in Trenton, New Jersey.

I enjoyed it.

In a lot of ways, the Gospel makes more sense in a place like that than anywhere else. Not to mention, preaching is different when the men hearing you aren’t there because their wives or mothers have forced their attendance.

So I enjoyed the prison, but I didn’t enjoy everything about the job.

Part of my routine, every week, was to visit and counsel the inmates in solitary confinement. It was a sticky, hot, dark wing of the prison. Because every inmate was locked behind a heavy, steel door with just a sliver of thick plexiglass for a window, unlike the rest of the prison, the solitary wing was as silent as a tomb. Whenever I think of Hell, I think of that place.

But not for the reasons you might expect.

Whenever I visited solitary, the officer on duty was almost always a 50-something Sergeant named Moore.

Officer Moore had a thick, Mike Dikta mustache and coarse sandy hair he combed into a meticulous, greased part. He was tall and strong and, to be honest, intimidating. He had a Marine Corps tattoo on one forearm and a heart with a woman’s name on the other arm.

Whenever I visited solitary he’d buzz me inside only after I refused to go away. He’d usually be sitting down, gripping the sides of his desk, reading a newspaper. I hated going there because, every time I did, he’d greet me heated ridicule.

      He’d grumble things like: ‘Save your breath, preacher, you’re wasting your time.’

He’d grumble things like: ‘Do you know what these people did? They don’t deserve forgiveness.’

He’d grumble things like: ‘They only listen to you because they’ve got no one else.’

Once, when we gathered for a worship service, I’d invited Officer Moore to join us.

He grumbled that he’d have ‘nothing to do with a God who’d have anything to do with trash like them’ and he refused to come in.

Instead he sat outside with his arm crossed. The locked prison door between us.

About halfway through my time at the prison, Officer Moore suffered a near fatal heart attack; in fact, he was dead for several minutes before the rescue squad revived him.

I know this because when he returned to work, he told me. Tried to throw it in my face.

‘It’s all a sham’ he grumbled at me one afternoon.

‘I was dead for 3 minutes. Dead. And you know what I experienced? Nothing. I didn’t see any bright light at the end of any tunnel. It was just darkness. Your god? All make believe.’

Back then- at the beginning of my ministry, before I was the wise and seasoned pastor you see before you- I tended towards sarcasm. So even though I don’t put much stock in the light at the end of the tunnel cliche, that didn’t stop me from saying to Sergeant Moore:

‘Maybe you should take that as a warning.

Maybe there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for you.’

He grumbled and said: ‘Don’t tell me you believe in Hell?’

‘What makes you think I wouldn’t believe in Hell?’ I asked, playing with him.

‘Oh, since I don’t believe in your Jesus, I’m going to Hell? Is that it?’

Officer Moore pushed his chair back and fussed with his collar. He suddenly seemed uncomfortable. His eyes took a bead on me. ‘So what the Hell’s Hell like then?’ he asked, smirking. ‘Fire and brimstone, I mean, really?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘fire, brimstone, gnashing of teeth, those are probably all metaphors.’

He let out a sarcastic sigh of relief.  So then I added: ‘Metaphors for something much worse maybe.’

That got his attention.

‘Your loving God sends people to a place worse than brimstone just because they don’t believe in him?’ he asked.

     ‘Who said anything about God sending them there?’ I said.

‘No, I think Hell is a place where the door is locked from the inside.’

Back then, I wasn’t the wise and seasoned and mature pastor you see before you, so I didn’t mention to him that I’d plagiarized that line from C.S. Lewis.

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Hell is a place where the door is locked from the inside. 

By us.

I said.

Back then.

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But is it?

Is that even possible?

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“If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks 3 chapters prior to today’s text.

If God is for us- all of us

If God is determined to reconcile and redeem all of us

And not only us-

If God is determined to rescue and restore all of creation from its bondage to the Power of Sin, then what could stand in God’s way?

“If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks back in Romans 8.

If God made each of us and all that is and called it very good- that’s Genesis 1.

And if God is determined to make each of us and all that is beautiful again- that’s Genesis 12.

If God in Jesus Christ came for all- that’s John 1.

If Christ died for all- that’s 2 Corinthians 5.15.

If Jesus the Judge was judged in your place, once for all- that’s Hebrews 10.

And if God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruit, the first sign, the harbinger of what God intends to do for all of creation- 1 Corinthians 15

If that’s what God intends, then what is to stop God from getting what God wants?

If God’s unambiguous aim is the salvation of all, then what ultimately can get in God’s way?

Because by definition NOTHING can deny God what God desires.

That’s 2 Timothy 2.13.

Or, as Paul frames it back in Romans 8: ‘What can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? What, in the end, can separate us from God?

And one by one Paul proceeds to eliminate the possibilities:

Hardship. Check. Injustice. Check. Persecution. Famine. Check. Check.Nakedness. Nope.War. Not it either. It can’t separate us from the love of God. None of them. Not Death. Not Rulers. Not Powers. Neither things present nor things to come. Not anything in all of creation. Nothing can separate us from what God wants to do with us.

Except-

The Apostle Paul does leave one possibility off his list: Hardship. Injustice. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Peril. War. Death. Rulers. Powers.

There is one possibility missing from Paul’s list.

One potential disqualifier remains: Us.

Hardship. Injustice. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Peril. Sword. Not any of them can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, but what about us?

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What about us? Can we separate ourselves from the love of God?

Can we separate ourselves from God through our unbelief, through our lack of faith, through our disobedient refusal to accept the grace of God in Jesus Christ?

Do we possess that power? Do we possess the ability to separate ourselves forever from the love of God? To slam the door and throw the lock?

Can we really run away and hide forever from a God who’s so determined to get us he chases us all the way to a cross and back? If Nakedness and Famine and War can’t do it, can we? Can we separate ourselves from God so that the God who desires the salvation of all only ends up with some?

    Can we make it so that the God who wants all only gets some?

Do we have the capacity to keep from God the everything God wants?

That’s the question Paul takes up next in Romans 9-11 and he does so by turning to the most obvious example available to him.

Israel.

The Jews- those who’ve received the message of the Gospel and not responded in faith and obedience.

When it comes to unbelievers like them, has the Word of God failed? Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 9.

How are they to be saved by him in whom they have not believed? Paul asks in Romans 10.

It’s not really the case that God has rejected God’s People, is it? Paul asks at the top of today’s chapter.

And just the grammar of that last question gives away the answer. As soon as Paul refers to Israel as God’s People he’s already shown his tell: “By no means!” Paul answers immediately in verse 1.

By no means! God has not rejected God’s People. His chosen People.  The People he’s promised, no-strings-attached: “I will be your God and you will be my People.”

It’s not really the case that God has rejected God’s People, is it?

By no means – for if God will break his promise to them, then Paul could’ve ended his letter back in Romans 8.

And his list could’ve been a lot shorter.

Who can separate us from the love of God? Well, Paul, it turns out God can separate us from God. God can break his no-strings-attached unconditional covenant promise. God can reject God’s People.

So-

Has God rejected God’s People?

By no means! is the only possible answer for Paul.

God has not rejected God’s People because they reject God’s Messiah.

Or rather, in rejecting God’s Messiah they have not separated themselves from the love of God. Because Israel- They’re not responsible for their rejection of God’s Messiah.

Paul’s whole letter to the Romans has been about what God does not about what we do, and Paul’s focus on the agency of God doesn’t change when he turns to God’s People in chapters 9-11.

God’s People- They’re not responsible for their rejection of God’s Messiah.

They’re not the acting agents. They’re not behind their lack of belief. Their failure of faith is not their fault. They’ve not decided to disobey. No.

If God cannot break a no-strings-attached promise, if- by no means- has God rejected his People, then that leaves only one possibility for Paul.

Israel’s rejection of Christ and God’s apparent rejection of them- it’s God’s doing, not their own.

And, Paul says, it fits a pattern of what God has always done:

God choosing Abel over Cain. God choosing Jacob over Esau. Moses over Pharaoh. God choosing David over Saul. God choosing Israel over all the other nations of the earth.  What looks like God’s rejection of some in scripture always serves God’s election of all. Even the Father rejecting the Son, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” even that forsaking is for all.

Have God’s People stumbled so as to fall away forever from God? Paul asks in verse 11 before he answers in the very same breath: “No!”

Instead their stumbling, their rejection- like Abel instead of Cain, like Sarah instead of Hagar, like Isaac instead of Ishmael- their stumbling is for the reconciliation of the whole world, Paul says in verse 15.

The failure of some to believe does not frustrate God’s aim to save all.

Let me say that again because it’s so paradoxical it can only be Gospel:

The failure of some to believe does not frustrate God’s aim to save all.

The failure of some to believe is in fact the means by which God is working even now to show mercy to all.

Paul calls this means a “mystery.”

“So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon some of Israel, until all [the world] has come to God.”

Only, in the New Testament, the word mystery doesn’t refer to something still unknown to us. In the New Testament, a mystery isn’t something that leaves you still in the dark scratching your head. In the New Testament, a mystery is a secret that’s been revealed to us by God- a mystery is a secret that can be told.

As when the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians “Behold, I tell you a mystery…” and then Paul proclaims the secret that’s been revealed to us: “We will not die…we will be changed…for on the day of Resurrection we will be raised…that which is perishable will become imperishable.”

Likewise, here Paul writes to the Church at Rome: “I want you to understand this secret that’s been revealed to us…”

The mystery- the mystery is that God has chosen some for disobedience so that others might obey.

The mystery is that God has chosen some for disbelief so that others might believe.

The opened secret is that God has chosen ungodliness for some so that others might find God.

“…a hardening has come upon them…” Paul says.

Note the passive voice. Notice, it’s not: “They’ve hardened their hearts.” It’s come upon them. God is doing it.

Just as you believe in Jesus Christ solely by the gracious work of God upon you, so too they disbelieve because of the work of God upon them.

A hardening has come upon some so that all might come to God, Paul says.

And then in the next verse, Paul declares: “…so all Israel will be saved.” Pantes is the word and Paul doesn’t qualify it all. It means all.

Notice what Paul doesn’t say-

He doesn’t say all Israel will believe. He doesn’t say all Israel will confess Jesus Christ and thereby be saved. He just says all Israel will be saved. Your belief, their unbelief- it’s a mystery.

It’s all God’s doing.

Your belief is not your doing. Their unbelief is not their doing.

It’s all God’s doing.

So-

Those who reject the love of God in Jesus Christ, those who reject the Gospel, they’re not enemies of God. God has made them enemies of the Gospel for you.

For your sake: “…God has imprisoned some in disobedience so that God might be merciful to all.”

You see, for Paul the danger isn’t that unbelievers could ever separate themselves from the love of God in Christ Jesus; the danger is that believers like you will draw that conclusion.

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A few days after our conversation about Hell, I left in Officer Moore’s mailbox a copy of a book, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

It’s a fable about the residents of Hell taking a bus trip to Heaven. They’re given the option to stay but, one by one, they choose to turn and go back.

I had dog-eared some pages and highlighted some text for Officer Moore, hoping we could talk about it the next time I saw him.

Specifically, I highlighted these words:

It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In the end, there are only two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Your will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Your will be done.’

I left the book in his mailbox.

A week later I went to solitary to see if he wanted to talk.

As always he refused to buzz me in but this time when I mentioned I was there to talk to him, he didn’t give in. He wouldn’t let me in.

I asked if he read the book. Not saying anything, he got up and walked to the entrance door, his body was one big snarl. He slid the book between the bars.

‘A whole lot of nonsense’ he grumbled at me. And then he told me to go the Hell away.

Back then, I wasn’t the wise and seasoned and quick-witted pastor you see before you today. To be honest, back then I hadn’t ever read the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Because if I had I could’ve told him.

You’re right, I could’ve said to him. It is a whole lot of nonsense. C.S. Lewis might’ve known a lot about lions and wardrobes and Turkish Delight, but he didn’t know jack abut this secret that’s been revealed to us: the mystery. 

     The mystery of our disobedience.

You’re right, I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve said to him.

Hell is where the door is locked from the inside by us?! That’s a whole lot of nonsense. 

     Not only is it idolatrous, for it imagines a Self who desires are stronger than God’s desire. 

     It completely misses the mystery that’s been revealed to us: that salvation is the work of God where even our ‘No’ to God serves God’s ultimate ‘Yes’ to us. Even our ‘No’ to God is itself the work of God working towards what God wants for all. 

     You’re right, I could’ve shot back at the Sergeant.  

     It is a whole lot of nonsense. 

     How could we ever separate ourselves forever from the love of God in Jesus Christ when even the disobedience of some is part of God’s plan for all? 

     God is bigger than our badness. 

     We can’t lock Hell’s doors from the inside because ultimately the work of God is going to make even our disobedience and disbelief work in our favor because of his favor, his unmerited favor, which is his grace. 

     The disobedience and disbelief of some is only temporary. 

     God will banish all ungodliness. 

      God will turn disobedience to obedience. God will turn disbelief into belief. 

     God will transform unfaithfulness to faithfulness as surely as he can bring life from death. 

     And in the meantime- I could’ve told him.

     There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord- whether you like it or not.

     There is nothing about you that can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

    There is nothing in all of creation- not war, not famine, not powers or persecution, not even you- there is nothing in all of creation that can separate you from the love of God because everything in creation in is a work of God’s grace. 

     Even your disbelief. 

Maybe you can lock the door for a time, I could’ve said to him, but forever? In the end God will raze even Hell to get what God wants.

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Of course, if I had told him all that back then, he would’ve just grumbled some more.

If all are saved, no matter what, then what’s the point? He might’ve replied.

Why should I bother following your Jesus?

     Back then I wasn’t the wise and seasoned preacher you see before you. I wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to say to him what I’d say today:

What’s the point if all are saved? 

     What’s the point of being first rather than last? 

    Why be found rather than lost? 

     Why know the truth rather than live in ignorance? 

     

     Why be fully human?

     What’s the point? 

To ask the question is to miss the point.

     

     

 

 

 

 

     Some folks have commented about our summer sermon series and how they’re surprised that the Power of Sin/Death/Satan has figured so significantly into my preaching.

It seems awful old-fashioned and superstitious, the obvious implication conveys. Maybe so.

But necessarily so, I’d argue.

Lordship, which Paul highlights as the climax of the Gospel and identifies as the necessary confession for faith, is also the most frequent self-attestation Jesus makes in the Gospel narratives. By my count, at least 26 times in the Synoptics Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man prefigured in Daniel 7.13-14.

In the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, it’s Jesus’ declaration that he’s the promised Son of Man that provokes the plot to undo him, and it’s at the end of Mark’s Gospel- at his trial- that Jesus, alluding to Daniel 7 and Psalm 110, refers to himself as the Son of Man again, causing the chief priests to tear their garments and accuse him of blasphemy.

They condemn Jesus to death for claiming that God soon would install him at God’s right hand as the King and Lord of the cosmos.

Two features emerge from the Son of Man texts Jesus cites.

1. ) The scope of the Son of Man’s Lordship will be cosmic and universal: “…to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion…” 

2.) Also, the Son of Man will establish his dominion as Lord by wresting dominion from God’s enemies: “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool at your feet. (Psalm 110.1)”

     Caesar understood what Christians so often forget even though it’s obvious in the scriptures Jesus applies to himself: to be allegiant to one Lord is to content against another Lord.

When Paul tells the Romans that in order to be saved they must confess that Jesus is Lord, Paul leaves unsaid the necessary correlative confession: to name Jesus as Lord is to name the Enemy from whom Jesus has delivered you. If we contribute anything to our salvation, perhaps it’s only our knowledge of the one against whom the battle we call salvation is fought.

Christ’s Lordship is cosmic in terms of the universal, creation-vast scope of his reign.

Christ’s Lordship is cosmic because it’s a dominion being wrought in opposition to alien Powers that are themselves cosmic.

 

What God has done in Christ, enthroning Jesus as the Lord prophesied by Daniel, becomes unintelligible if we reduce the dramatis personnae of the salvation story to 3: God, Christ, and Humanity.

To understand the cosmic claims of Christ’s Lordship, the Gospel story requires 4 characters:

God, Christ, Humanity.

And the Enemy.

Whom Paul calls variously Sin, Death, the Powers, and Satan.

The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him; you certainly can’t confess “Jesus is Lord” in the fullness meant by the church fathers. Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory.

Whether you believe Satan is real is beside the point because Jesus did.

To pull off the monster masks and to insist that something else is going on behind them, as the Enlightenment has taught us to do, is to ignore how Jesus, fundamentally, understood himself and his mission. It’s to ignore how his first followers- and, interestingly, his first critics- understood him.

The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.”

And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.” When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…”

     As much as he was a teacher or a wonder worker, a prophet or a preacher or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist.

And he understood his ministry as being not just for us but against the One whom he called the Adversary without who there is no Gospel. Because, according to the Gospel, our salvation is not a 2-person drama. It’s not a 2-person cast of God-in-Christ and us. It’s not a simple exchange brokered over our sin and his cross.

According to the Gospels, the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sin. The Gospel is that Jesus defeated Sin with a capital S. The Gospel is not just that Jesus suffered in your place. The Gospel is that Jesus overcame the One who holds you in your place.

It isn’t just that Jesus died your death. It’s that Jesus has delivered you from the Power of Death with a capital D, the one whom Paul calls the Enemy with a capital E.

According to scripture, there is a 3rd character in this story. There’s a third cast member to the salvation drama. We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another.  We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another.

It’s true that when we call Jesus ‘Lord’ we confess he’s Lord of all creation, but the underside of our confession, the necessary correlative to it, is that the creation of which Jesus is Lord is held in bondage by a Captor.

To confess Jesus as Lord of Creation is to profess that Jesus will free the creation from the Powers that contend against him and hold creation in captivity. 

As Paul himself points out at the end of his summary of the 8 part Gospel: “Then comes the end, when he hands over the Kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is Death.” – 1 Corinthians 15

The place in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul most often confesses Jesus as Lord, the Letter to the Romans, is also the place where Paul devotes the most attention to the anti-god Powers that would rule in opposition to God. As the ancient commentator, Ambrosiastor,  observed about Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “The entire letter is about the defeat of the Power of Satan.”